Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Muslims and Christians and Jews, oh my! A personal perspective of the conflict in the middle east.

Greetings! Its been a while since I’ve written in my travel blog, but a recent trip to the Middle East had such a major impact on me that I felt obliged to write another unreasonably long (but hopefully interesting!) blog post. If you’re short on time, I’d recommend reading the sections on Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Since my last post about Turkey almost 2 years ago, my travels have wandered around Brazil (highlighted by backpacking around a small island outside of Rio, where I bartered my iPod Nano when I ran out of cash for 10 days of food, beer, a surfboard, and a spot to hang my hammock on a secluded beach), explored India (highlighted by meeting a poor Rickshaw driver named Rasheed, being invited twice to his modest house for meals, and watching obscenely long Bollywood movies with his friends), and road tripped around our favorite island nation that rhymes with Tuba.

Since my last blog post, I’ve enrolled in an MBA program at Harvard Business School, which has been a great experience so far. In my huge 900 person class, of which about 1/3 of students are international, 6 classmates were born in Israel and were gracious enough to organize an amazing 10 day trip around the country. Among other reasons to go on the trip, I recognized that I hardly understood what was meant by the phrase we hear all too often “peace in the middle east,” so I decided to go on the trip to get a closer look at the conflict and educate myself about why this peace is so elusive. I can’t say enough about how great a trip my friends put on for us, or how much I appreciate the immense amount of work they put into organizing it.

Also, before writing more, I should emphasize that I’m trying to write this entry from as neutral of a perspective as possible. I recall many things from memory, so please forgive me if I make an inaccurate comment – its not meant to do so to twist facts or mislead you. I’m trying to recreate my experience for you all, and to present the facts, experiences, and conversations that I had in as unbiased of a manner as possible, so that you all can make your own conclusions, as I have. Further, I’d encourage anyone reading this to plan a trip to the Middle East yourself, as reading is no substitute for experiencing.

A bit of background
Here are a few words on the background of the history of the Israel – Palestine conflict, as I understand them (This lacks a ton of important details, but condenses a few of the most of critical points, I think):

The Jews have a long and tragic history of persecution, culminating in the tragic story of the holocaust. During WWII, a steady stream of Jews found refuge in Palestine. Following substantial conflict in the area, the UN approved the UN Partition Plan in 1947 dividing the country into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Arabs rejected the plan, and civil war quickly broke out. The determined Jewish people persevered, and after a year of fighting Israel had defended itself against attacks from five neighboring countries, a cease-fire was called, and temporary borders were drawn.

Responding to attacks in 1967, Israel launched attacks on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and captured the territories known as the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. These lands constituted immense strategic advantages to Israel, so Israel began to incentivize Jews to settle in these areas to ensure that they could not be easily won back, and they have controlled the land ever since. Meanwhile, many of the Arabs living on the captured land, the Palestinians, remained on their land, now under Israeli rule. This is the heart of the conflict in the Middle East. The Jews believe that Israel is land promised to them in the Bible, and therefore Jews don’t believe that non-Jews (the Palestinians) have any right to the land. The Palestinians, on the other hand, believe that Israel was unjustly taken from them, and don’t believe that the Jews have any right to the land.


Glamorous clubs, high-tech startups, and F-16s- The many sides of Modern Tel Aviv
Our trip began shortly after Final Exams by arriving in Tel Aviv after a red-eye flight from Newark. Since most of the trip had been planned by our Israeli organizers, I did very little research into Israel or Tel Aviv before arriving. I was therefore, pleasantly surprised to find Tel Aviv to be a thriving, beautiful, modern city located on a long and gorgeous beach. We immediately began to explore the city, and Assaf, one of the organizers took a group of us to the ancient Muslim quarter of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, for what he claimed to be “the world’s best Hummus.” After a chaotic exchange in Hebrew, the Hummus arrived, and Assaf wasn’t lying – it was certainly the best hummus I’d ever had. This was shaping up to be a great trip. After a lazy afternoon on the beach, Assaf and his family were kind enough to host our entire group of 80 students at their beautiful house in a nearby town, and after we learned why Tel Aviv is legendary for its nightlife.

The next day, we got to tour an Israeli Air Force Base and poke our heads around a pair of F-16 Fighter Jets. During the tour, a flight navigator gave us a fantastic discussion on her squadron. Service in the military is mandatory for all Israelis (male and female), and I certainly got the sense that they view the service with great respect and duty, as Israel is frequently under attack by its neighbors. The woman who spoke to us had been in active combat, and spoke of the role of their strong Air Force in defending Israel. She also placed great emphasis on the care they take when an attack on enemy territory is necessary to ensure that civilian damage is minimized to the fullest extent possible.

On a much lighter note, we then traveled to “Silicon Wadi,” Israel’s Silicon Valley – home to the highest number of start-up companies per-capita in the world. An all-star panel of entrepreneurs and executives greeted us with an interesting panel that described how Israel had created a fertile environment to create to nurture startups. They also explained how multinationals can expand to leverage Israel’s innovation and unique entrepreneurial culture. Interestingly, however, the panel didn’t really answer a question I asked, inquiring how non-Israelis could take advantage of the incredible entrepreneurial environment, and one of the panelists suggested that the entrepreneurial environment could be much more successful if it was more open to non-Jewish scholars, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople.

Jerusalem and the Holy Sites
Over the next two days we explored Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The experience was incredibly powerful, and set the stage for much of our experience in Israel. The museum presented moving and emotional stories of individual holocaust victims, providing a face to the six million victims. As our tour guide said, the Holocaust is 60 years past, but it hangs over Israel like a dark cloud reminding the Jewish people of their tragic history, their shared heritage, and their need to guard against future atrocities for all mankind.

After the museum tour, we visited the Western Wall, aka the Wailing Wall, which Jews view as one of the holiest places in the world. Hundreds of orthodox Jews were praying at the wall alongside many tourists as well. People write prayers or wishes on small pieces of paper and stick them in to the side of the wall. We also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is one of the most important Christian temples in the world. Many Christians believe it to be the location of Jesus crucifixion, and some also believe he was buried in a cave on the grounds of the church. We also walked the 14 stations of the cross, the Via Delorosa. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the Dome of the Rock, which is a Muslim temple, one of the most important temples in the Islamic faith.

One thing I didn’t really recognize is that Jerusalem is at the center of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, the religions all share the same roots, and it all began with Judaism. All three religions believe in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Christians and the Muslims both believe in the New Testament, and only Muslims believe in the Koran. The Jews believe that Jesus existed, but don’t believe that he was the Messiah and are still waiting for the Messiah. Thus they accept the fact of his life and death, but reject the New Testament writings about his life – they do not believe he ever claimed to be the son of God, as the apostles wrote in the scriptures.

A major highlight of the entire trip was a visit with Tzipi Livni at the Knesset (the legislative branch of Israeli govt). Our Israeli hosts somehow organized this meeting with Livni, who is a fierce political rival of Benjamin Netanyahu, and a recent candidate for Prime Minister. She was incredibly articulate, smooth, and inspiring as she optimistically spoke of the need for and possibility of peace in the Middle East. She said that she is working to establish a two-state solution with Palestine, and disagrees with Netanyahu’s tactics for achieving peace with the Palestinians. Specifically, she was advocating negotiating with the Palestinians now, and turning over some control once the Palestinians form a stable, non-violent government, while Netanyahu proposes waiting for the Palestinians to get their act together before beginning negotiations. Though I don’t recall her taking a stance on settlement expansion, her stated policies are a bit more aligned with President Obama’s. Her outspoken clashes with Netanyahu (frequently covered in Israeli newspapers), and his contradiction with Obama made Netanyahu’s power seem unstable, and in fact we got to sit in on a session of the Knesset where a vote of no confidence was being debated for Netanyahu.

Wandering around Israel: Masada, the Dead Sea, and Eilat
We arose at 2am for a 3am bus departure to Masada, the famous mountain fortress where Jewish fighters all committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman empire after a year long siege. We climbed to the top of the mountain at 5am and watched the sun rise over the dead sea. Next, we visited a resort on the Dead Sea and spent a few hours floating in the water. It is truly a unique experience, as the high salt content of the water makes it almost impossible to submerge yourself, and you float high out of the water without swimming. We also covered ourselves in Dead Sea mud, which is supposed to clean and renew your skin. After the Dead Sea, we journeyed on to Eilat, on the Red Sea, where we did a lot of much needed relaxing and also went scuba diving at an amazing wreck sight.

Nazareth, Jesus’s ‘hood, and tubing down the Jordan River
We boarded a short 1 hour flight to from Eilat to Tel Aviv, and then took a bus on to Nazareth, touring a church built on the grounds where Mary and Joseph were thought to have lived. The church contained dozens of pieces of art donated from different countries, all depicting Mary and the baby Jesus, with dramatic variations in style.

We then went white water rafting down the Jordan river. It was really more of a white water “floating”, but there was one actual rapid about one hour in to the two hour experience. Our hotel for the evening was at a Kibbutz, which is an almost-extinct communal style living that used to be common in Israel.

Jerusalem on Shabbat
One last experience I was shocked to see was when Justin and I returned to Jerusalem on the Shabbat (Sabbath). Orthodox Jews believe that the Shabbat is the day of rest, and will not do any work whatsoever. In fact, hotels in Israel have an elevator that will stop at every floor on the Shabbat so that you don’t have to even press the elevator buttons. Justin was wandering around, lost, looking for an ATM, when he found himself in the midst of an angry group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews rioting. He was unable to figure out what was happening at the time, but the next day the Jerusalem Post reported that the riot, which left 6 police officers injured, was a protest over the city’s decision to open a parking lot (attended by a non-jew) on Shabbat. The protesters pelted officers with stones, food and diapers. While I won’t comment on the religious beliefs, one can draw a parallel to Muslim extremists who resort to violence when they feel that their religion and daily life are put in jeopardy.


Why don’t you call me Indiana Jones – exploring the ruins of Petra
After spending about 10 days in Israel and finishing up the organized trip with people from school, Justin and I felt that we had a good sense of the Israeli perspective of the conflict. We had planned to relax on the red sea for a week, relaxing and scuba diving, but instead we decided that there’s two sides to every story, and we needed to better understand the Palestinian perspective, so we set off on a trip to Jordan and the West Bank.

We started off spending 2 days at Petra in Jordan, which is collection of about eight hundred 2000-year old tombs carved out of a mountain. One of the most impressive facades was used in Indiana Jones, and overall, Petra is the one of the most amazing place I’ve seen in the world. We spent 10 hours hiking around the gorgeous mountains, canyons, and cliffs, and exploring probably over 100 tombs, but we really only scratched the surface of the immense site.

Exhausted after a long day hiking in the scorching Jordanian sun, we went directly from Petra to feast on a huge, delicious dinner, when we began talking to a man sitting next to us named Tariq. Tariq, a Muslim, was a taxi driver who was born in Ramallah in the West Bank, and was 2 years old when the war broke out in 1967. His family fled to Jordan to escape the war, and he has never been able to return to visit his home or family that remains there. Clearly, this man had a strong opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was eager to share it. I should note, however, that while the conversation was pretty sensitive, Tariq was probably the friendliest person we had met on our trip, and he treated us to a local-style coffee (with Cardamom!) during out 3-hour conversation. His perspective was one of a displaced person, who resents the people who drove him out of his country and forbid his return. He was obsessed with Obama (as were virtually all Muslims we spoke with), but hesitant to think that he’ll help the region to reach peace. When asked if he would support a two-state solution, he refused to answer saying “it will never happen,” a response that we subsequently heard over and over. One of his most surprising statements was that he claims that many Muslims do not believe Osama bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11, and believe it was a US government conspiracy. From their perspective, it is not so hard to see why this belief may be common- the United States has used 9/11 to justify everything we have done lately, “do anything necessary to prevent another 9/11”, not the least of which is invading Iraq. Also, he emphasized that it was not in the nature of Muslims to commit such an attack. He claimed that Muslims are extremely peaceful, and the Koran forbids them of “even harming an insect,” and explained that the Afghani people are too simple to commit such a complicated attack. Tariq’s comments made me understand that violent extremists who support Jihad are rare exceptions, and do not reflect the beliefs or demeanor of the population at large. Indeed, we found the Muslims that we met throughout Jordan and the West Bank to be extremely friendly and welcoming (one of the most friendly and welcoming societies I’ve ever visited).

During out lively conversation with Tariq, the owner of the restaurant chimed in as well. The owner, a Christian, told us about his home town, Madaba, which is a small town near Amman (Jordan’s capital) that has some interesting ancient sites.

OK, now you can really call me Indiana Jones : Archeological dig near Madaba
Madaba sounded pretty interesting, so we set out to Madaba in the morning. Upon arriving at our guest house in Madaba, we noticed a number of Americans surfing the internet on their laptops in the lobby. We quickly found out that they were archaeologists from Andrews University working on a local site / dig. We talked to Randy, the director of the program, and offered our services as manual labor to help the dig. “We leave at 5am, see ya in the lobby” was the response. Randy, BTW, is Indiana Jones in the flesh – he looks, acts, and talks exactly as one might imagine a famous professor of archaeology searching the middle east for hidden treasure.
We got to the dig site at about 5:30 am. The site was an ancient town from Biblical times (the Iron II age, about 2700 years ago), which is a huge hill with about ten 10 meter x 10 meter dig sites spotted around the hill. Apparently, over hundreds of years, sand and dirt buried the ancient town, and left many of the structures and surrounding walls in tact below the hill that formed above it.

Over the next seven hours, Justin and I carefully dug through a 6’ x 3’ x 3’ section, collecting pottery, bones, and a seashell pendant (would have been a status symbol at the time), and sifted the dirt we excavated, finding many more tiny objects. It gave us a new appreciation for all of the archeological sites we’d been climbing around over the past week, since it took us so many hours to sort through a tiny portion of a small room in a pretty-good-sized ancient village. Interesting factoid of the day: archaeologists estimate that only 20% of the important sights in the middle east have been sufficiently explored. I’ve rarely been so dirty and after 20 minutes in the shower scrubbing dirt & dust off every inch of my body, said a silent word of thanks that I wasn’t a maid out our hotel. This was an incredibly cool experience, and recommend that everyone try it sometime. Check out for a listing of many ongoing digs, many of which allow visitors. Info on our dig site is here:

The West Bank

First experience in the Palestinian Territories: Traveling to and around Ramallah
After we scrubbed off, we hopped in a taxi for the Israeli border. We were thoroughly questioned as we went through Israeli customs in a process that is quite harsh and intimidating. After entering Israel, we jumped in a bus to Jerusalem where we wandered around lost looking for a bus to Ramallah, the governmental and cultural capital of Palestine. Confused, I quizzically asked a Palestinian teenager “Ramallah?,” and he tried to point where we could catch the bus. Unable to communicate, the guy got up and walked us to the bus about 10 minutes away. I’ve rarely found someone willing to go so far out of there way for a stranger, but this was only the first of three times in the next two days this would happen in the Palestinian territories.
After a short ride North, we began to see the wall the Israelis are constructing around the West Bank. It rises about 15 feet and beyond the horizon in both directions. Crossing into the West Bank requires you to pass through one of the hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints throughout the West Bank that serve to safeguard the Israelis settlements in the West Bank and control movement of the Palestinians. Fortunately, the crossing was not a problem- the bus doesn’t even have to stop and unload (as it does returning into Israeli territory). Immediately upon crossing into the West Bank, passing tall, military style guard towers, the Palestinian feeling of oppression becomes evident. Huge, beautiful murals adorn the wall near the checkpoint, crying out to “Free Palestine!”, and “Free the Palestinian Nelson Mandela”.

Again, we found ourselves hopelessly lost when we got off the bus on the hectic Ramallah streets, and again, a local came to our aid. The incredibly friendly and hospitable man, who looked to be about 55 years old, helped orient us and later walked us to our hotel. Along the way, he recommended a restaurant to get a snack. That day Obama made his landmark address to the Middle East from Cairo, so it is not surprising that the conversation quickly turned to politics. The man lives in Ramala and works in real estate. Of anyone we spoke with, he was the most critical of Israeli actions. He talked about how the government turns off their water at least once a week and without notice (residents of nearby villages complained that they usually only get water one day a week), when Israeli settlement dwellers face no restrictions on filling their own swimming pools. He was angry about attacks on Gaza which he claim have killed hundreds of children, and cast the Hamas rockets being fired into Israel as nothing more than fireworks since they hadn’t actually killed anyone. He also blasted Americans for supporting Israel, and American soldiers for fighting wars overseas, saying that it was dishonorable to do so. His claim is that if you are defending your country (ie Palestine), then you are a freedom fighter, but if you are blindly fighting a war of choice for a corrupt government, then you are the terrorist. The conversation was still friendly, however, I instantly became worried that the conversation would escalate since I was with Justin, who fought in Iraq and the man was essentially calling him a terrorist. Surprisingly, Justin listened calmly, even empathized a bit with him when he told of visiting the United States and being called a terrorist just because he was a Muslim who believed in the Palestinian cause. He was very critical of American media, saying it was a tool of Israeli propaganda and that the US government was also a pawn controlled by the Jews. After our conversation and hours after we got off our bus, he walked us around the town in an attempt to find our hotel, which turned out to be 3 doors down from the restaurant, exactly where our bus dropped us off.

To the village! Making friends with the locals
The next morning we were jolted awake at 3:45am by the loudest Muslim prayer I’ve ever heard. It sounded like the city speakers were directly in our room on full volume. It happened again at 4:30, but luckily no more. We slept untill 9am, ate a falafel sandwich for breakfast, and visited the produce market, which was just getting in to swing about 10:30am. While walking around, we met a 19-year-old kid with the nickname “Jonny” who was eager to speak with us to practice his English and just hang out. Johnny explained that he was planning to head to his village, where his family would be gathering to pass the weekend together. He invited us to join and we quickly accepted his kind offer. Along the way we passed multiple checkpoints, and Johnny expressed the incredible hardship they place on the Palestinians. At times, he said, soldiers close the checkpoint to traffic, requiring everyone to walk a 1-mile stretch of the road. He further explained that the soldiers can be unpredictable in the amount of time they take to let people pass through the checkpoint, which can be extremely problematic if you have to be somewhere (say work, or school) at a specific time. He explained that at worst the checkpoints make it impossible for someone to live in a village and work in town, where he or she can earn much better wages, and at best, the checkpoints are a daily hassle and incredibly time consuming. He also showed us his green ID card, which he is forced to show when passing through any of the checkpoints. This designates him as a Palestinian, and prevents him from visiting certain areas, such as Jerusalem. I later heard an American man volunteering at a Palestinian refugee center (more on this later) compare the ID cards to the yellow Star of David Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust; an incredibly controversial, yet provocative, comparison.

We arrived in Johnny’s small village and headed to his brother’s house, where we were greeted with incredible hosptiality. On the outside, the home looks like a partially demolished construction site – the street level rooms don’t have walls, lots of rubble, and a cement staircase that leads to two apartments upstairs, only one of which was finished. Apparently the house, containing an apartment for the parents and two apartment for the brothers, had been under construction for years, but economic difficulties prevented them from finishing it. While we are talking with the family, word spreads around town that we are there and people start coming over to see us – friends, sisters, brothers, other relatives, and Jonny’s mother and father. His mother thoroughly scolded him for not warning her about our visit so she could have prepared a proper Palestinian meal, and she sent him to the store for food, and then prepares us a great lunch of hummus, meat, cheese, pita bread, and salad.

Our conversation was incredibly enlightening, as we felt it gave us a glimpse into the perspective of how the Israeli occupation has affected common Palestinians. Everyone laments the suffering of the Palestinian people, but the family (especially Jonny’s sister) is especially critical of the Palestinian leadership. She contends that Fatah is too weak and had not improved the life of the Palestinians, so, while she condemns the violence Hamas is infamous for, she actually supports Hamas as the lesser of two evils because she feels that Hamas is fighting for the future of the oppressed Palestinian people. We later find out that Two of Jonny’s older brothers have been in prison, one for 2 years and the other for 1.5 years. While they admit that the former was arrested for being part of the “movement” (presumably Hamas), and claim the later was detained for no reason. According to them, the brother was traveling to Ramallah with his fiancĂ©e to make arrangements for his upcoming wedding, and he was inexplicably detained at the checkpoint. Apparently he was never given a cause for his “detention,” and when we finally got a court appearance 1.5 years later he was immediately released because they had no reason to keep him. While we certainly can’t verify this, it is true that Israeli soldiers can “detain” a Palestinian without cause for an indefinite period of time (think: Guantanamo Bay), and according to one man, there are over 10,000 such detainees. This further complicates the problem of the checkpoints and magnifies their ability to prevent the movement of the Palestinians, as they claim to fear going through checkpoints because they might be inexplicably detained. Overall, his family gave the sense that many Palestinians feel “bullied” by a powerful Israel, and some feel that they have no choice but to resort to violence to improve their lives.

The conflict up close: Hebron and Bethlehem
That night we stayed at a guesthouse at a Palestinian Refugee camp just outside of Bethlehem. The refugee camp was set up in 1948 and enlarged in 1967 to support Palestinians displaced from their homes. While it was intended to be a temporary camp, some have stayed for over 60 years for a number of reasons. First, some still don’t recognize Israel’s right to the land where they grew up, and they are waiting to be able to return to their homes. Second, many do not have the resources to leave. Apparently there are some jobs near the refugee camp, but it was explained that wages are as much as three times higher in Jerusalem for similar jobs but Palestinians are unable to work in Jerusalem. Therefore, many are unable to save the necessary amount to purchase a new home and leave the refugee camp.

The next day we traveled south to Hebron, which was perhaps the most striking view we had of the conflict. In most places throughout the West Bank, the Israeli settlements are a few miles outside of Palestinian towns. However, in Hebron, the Israeli settlements are within center of town, and are slowly consuming the once vibrant town. We got off of our bus in the middle of a bustling market, snaking along a narrow cobblestone street and flanked by hundreds of small shops in buildings that appeared to be hundreds of years old. After a few minutes of walking, the market began to thin out, with fewer people and many closed stores. The next thing you notice is chicken wire above the market, covered in trash and stones, and further above an Israeli flag flies proudly in the wind. Apparently, some of the buildings above the market are a part of the Israeli settlement, and the chicken wire was hung to protect Palestinians from objects thrown down at them by the Israelis. As you continue down the market, its empty streets provide a stark contrast to the busy market where we entered. Here, most shops have closed, in all we were told that over 850 shops in the area had closed in the recent past, and few people wander the streets. Apparently this is because frequent conflicts with the Israeli settlers have made Palestinians stop visiting the market to purchase their goods, as they can likely find them in other areas. One man who ran a store surrounded by dozens of closed shops explained that business is hard because Palestinians must pass through many checkpoints to reach the market (there are 16 checkpoints within the city), so they prefer to visit shops where they don’t have to pass checkpoints(he explained that he usually spends about two hours each day passing through checkpoints), and this reduced traffic forced hundreds of businesses to close their doors and their owners and workers to leave their homes and move out of the city. Among the many conflicts that Palestinians claim to have stopped consumers from visiting areas of the market, the most shocking conflict was a massacre in 1994, when a physician named Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque and opened fire, killing over 50 and wounding 150 unarmed Muslims as they prayed. Palestinian rioting immediately followed the shooting, leading in the following week to the deaths of 25 Palestinians and five Israelis. Following the massacre, Israel imposed a two-week curfew on the Palestinian residents of the city, while the Jewish settlers remained free to move around. Perhaps most shocking of all is that Israeli Settlers constructed a monument to Goldstein within the settlement (we were not able to see it).

As we understand it, the Israeli settlements within Hebron were originally illegal, but were eventually recognized by the Israeli government. Further, were told that the settlements continue to expand and further strangle the struggling town. While the Israeli government makes some efforts to demolish the illegal settlements, Israeli settlers sometimes retaliate against Palestinians in something called “payback,” where Israeli settlers vandalize Palestinian homes, after their illegal settlements are demolished (according to the Jerusalem Post). We spoke with one Palestinian man that explained that when he defended his house by throwing rocks at Israeli settlers, he was imprisoned for 3 years. One surprising statistic is that for all of this controversy, there are only about 500 Israeli settlers in Hebron, supported and protected by about 2,000 Israeli soldiers. This is compared to over 150,000 Palestinian residents, a number that is rapidly declining due to the conflict.

Currently, one of the most contentious issues between Israel and the US is Obama’s call for a complete halt on settlement development, including natural expansion, something Prime Minister Netanyahu has rejected. When I first heard this demand, I didn’t fully recognize why it was so important, and why Obama was making such a big deal about it. However, after visiting the Palestinian territories it is clear that it is absolutely at the heart of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. One expatriate we spoke with that has spent significant time in the area questioned how Israel could be serious about a two state solution while it continues to expand settlements. He further emphasized his belief that allowing “natural expansion” provides a major loophole for Israelis to continue to expand the settlements, a belief shared by many Palestinians we spoke with. For many Palestinians, continued expansion of the settlements eliminates the hope that they may see some relief from the restrictions the Israelis impose to protect the settlements. Perhaps his most controversial claim was that the settlements are partially expanded by rich Americans, who purchase homes in the settlements but don’t live there, and that Israeli soldiers will enter the unoccupied homes to turn on and off lights to make them appear that they are inhabited.

The End – What a trip!

Overall, this trip provided an incredibly enlightening experience, and I now feel that I can know enough about the issues to have an educated opinion. I hope that this blog presented a new perspective, though it should certainly only be one source for you to create you own opinion. While there are certainly strong opinions from all perspectives, I think we can all agree in hoping for peace in the very near future.

Israel, Jordan, and Palestine in Pictures - June 2009

Jerusalem - The Dome of the Rock, one of the most important sites in Islam can be seen in the back with the gold dome.

One of the 14 stations of the Cross - Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre - believed to be the site of the cave where Jesus' body was laid to rest following his crucifixion. Jerualem.

Aaaahhhh- Floating on the dead sea. Regular water is so lame after this!

The Treasury, the most famous site at Petra, in all its glory illuminated by candles and moonlight. Check out the Little dipper in the upper right

Justin and I at the Treasury - Petra

Indiana Jones?

Following our amazing conversation with Tariq and the restaurant owner.

"I Found Pottery!!!!" At the dig site in Madaba

The Wall - "Free Palestine!"

Ramallah. Yellow license plates mean that you can travel to Jerusalem - green and white means you can't (Just like ID cards for Palestinians)

Johnny's incredibly kind family

An Israeli settlement as seen by Johnny's village

Another settlement near Johnny's village

Some particular aggressive graffiti.

Painting at the refugee center

Some of the many graffiti / pictures painted on the wall. This one mocks the Palestinian government as blind and deaf to the troubles of the Palestinians.

The busy Hebron Market

Chickenwire to protect the Palestinians

This is only a few feet away from the packed corner of the market.

A Palestinian house in Hebron that has been literally surrounded by Israeli Settlements.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Home sweet home…in Istanbul

Merhaba! (Hello in Turkish)

So its been two months since I’ve written, and I come to you with another obnoxiously long email (sorry), but Ive been pretty busy. I’m out of Africa and back in the real world (well, sort of), and in early June I returned from my leave of absence and started to work again at Mercer (just changed names to Oliver Wyman Consulting Group). When I started work the gave me the option of doing a boring project in southern Utah, or helping to start a company in Istanbul, Turkey. Tough decision. It was actually pretty tough to just get home and up and leave again, but there were a lot of reasons why this made sense, so I moved to Istanbul about a month ago. I had no idea what to expect when I came, which was one reason why this move has been so surreal, but I absolutely love it here. Who knew Istanbul was so awesome? It has quickly shot up to be one of my favorite cities on the planet.

Istanbul is, by definition, a clash of cultures. It is on a land bridge between Asia and Europe, and is actually the only city in the world on two continents. On the one hand, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and is quite modern, and on the other, you’re in an incredibly Muslim country - You can probably see the minarets (spires) of about a dozen beautiful mosques from any point in the city – and you’re surrounded by history – it is the land of Alexander the Great, where Achilles battled the Trojans in Homer’s Iliand, and where the Ottoman Empire fought battles that would shape the world. When you’re out at a bar you inevitably hear a few songs of Western Pop music, immediately followed by several Turkish songs where people up their hands and start a traditional dance. Istanbul has incredible food (a very welcome change from the crap in Africa!), is overflowing with culture, is super active with tons to do, and is full of crazy, friendly, passionate people. The city is incredibly busy, yet somehow the chaos is beautifully orchestrated – over the years the hordes of people and cars have somehow managed to find a way to coexist, and couldn’t really function if someone did try to introduce order.

I’ve really been having a blast here since I arrived. We (me and a coworker, Kitty Lee) have fortunately met a bunch of other expats that shown us around, and made it much easier to get a lay of the very unfamiliar land. There are so many hidden streets and awesome bars/restaurants that would take years to find, so its nice to let someone else do the legwork. Right when we got here we met some people that invited us to this bar that is on top of an apartment building, but the building was dark, and kinda looked like we may or may not be chopped into pieces inside, and had no sign, but sure enough, when you emerged on the top floor there was this incredible terrace bar overlooking the Bosphorous (a channel connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea) and the entire city. We also met people who took us hiking just outside the city. Istanbul is HUGE, and we were driving out of the city on the Asian side for about 45 minutes when we rounded a corner were suddenly out of dense, urban Istanbul, and in the middle of cherry orchards in rural Turkey – I’ve really never seen a transition out of a city that sudden before. There was this gorgeous spot to hike through a canyon, and we spent the afternoon climbing and cliff jumping in absolutely perfect weather.

I have done some more touristy stuff as well, though I’m trying to keep my Uber-tourist-american-flag-fanny-pack wearing to a minimum. There is a TON to do here. There are so many beautiful and historic mosques its impossible to list them, but I have checked out the most prominent one, the blue mosque, as well as its neighbor, the Aya Sofia, an ancient cathedral converted into a mosque following the conquer of Istanbul in the 15th century. I’ve also gone to two traditional Turkish baths, which are an incredible way to relax, and quite an interesting experience as well. You change into a little sheet, then head into the bath, which is like a giant steam room. In the nicer ones this room is very ornate, usually a dome and made completely out of white marble. So after you’re all nice and sweaty, a big, hairy, overweight Turkish dude tells you to lay on this marble platform and get a ‘massage’, which is more of a foamy full body assault. No way to follow it up than by getting a nice hot foam shave, except that the shave ended with the man slapping my face with a burning stick. This is apparently to burn off ear hairs, but since I have no ear hair, nor could I understand the man’s explanation in Turkish of what he was doing with the firey stick, I was needless to say a bit alarmed and really wierded out. I have clearly been back.

Although I am loving Istanbul, it was quite an interesting change to arrive here. In the month following my last post I completely circled the globe, was on 4 continents in 4 vastly different cultures. My surroundings were going from weird to weird, just in a completely different direction. The first major change from Africa was my two week stop-over in Cambodia to see Nick Lazos, Jenn Carter, Andy Cashin, and Jeff Kane, who all live in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Great trip. After 5 hectic months in Africa, I was really just looking to relax, and I quickly found that few places on the planet can replicate the relaxing atmosphere you find in Cambodia.

Among the highlights of the trip was a short visit Angkor Wat, a huge complex temple (over 200 sq km!) in the middle of the jungle – Think the nickelodeon show ‘legends of the hidden temple’. In this giant complex there are literally dozens of incredible temples – you could spend days there. We rented bikes and rode all over, and I remember passing huge, beautiful temples that weren’t worth stopping at because there were just so many to see. My favorite temple had these huge trees all tangles up in the ancient stones, they had grown together centuries ago and now the roots would wind in and out of the temple. You’d find monks all of the temples, and at Angkor Wat, the main temple in the complex, I actually met a monk that I hung out with for more than an hour. It was really cool to be shown around by a monk, and it was interesting to talk to him for a while. He was interested in practicing his English, so he was also happy to be hanging out. It was kinda funny though – he was dressed in his traditional orange robe, and couldn’t even touch a woman (on the shoulder or anything), but he carried around a cell phone and was a huge soccer fan.

Also among the highlights of the trip was a two day live aboard scuba dive trip, hanging out with my friends at their place in Phnom Penh, Kane and I kicking the crap out of Carter and Lazos at Shirali Epps, our favorite game which we have now played on 5 continents (will they ever learn the simple rules?), eating the delicious food, especially the pizza, really good, cheap massages, and hanging out on the coast. Aaaahhh, the Cambodian coast. We went to this incredible small town called Kep that may be the most relaxing place Ive ever been. We stayed in this awesome hotel that was essentially a giant tree house, with really cool, secluded bungalows linked by wooden bridges.

I spent the last 4 days of my trip flyin solo, and trying to relax as much as possible before returning to reality. I had no trouble doing this on a tiny island near kep called Rabbit Island. You have to take a small boat on the 20 minute trip over, and we got caught in the middle of a huge thunderstorm. The rain flooded the engine, so we just were hanging out in the thunder on this rickety boat, and I was fairly certain we were going to be struck by lightnight and that the boat, which was filling up with water from the rain and leaks, would sink. “A three hour tour…I kept thinking to myself” I got to the island and it was still pouring, so this family living at the only house on the beach invited me in. They spoke no English, so it was an interesting interaction as I sat there with them and they just fed me some strange looking fish and tried to get me drunk with some mystery alcohol from a plastic bottle. It was actually a lot of fun. Only 40 people live on the Island, which takes about 3 hours to walk around, and there are no hotels, so you stay in bamboo bungalows the families have near their homes, and you eat with them. The bungalows could not be more basic – no bathroom, no windows for the that matter, and only electricity for about 2 hours a day. Wind tears through the bungalows, which keeps you from burning up at night, but also blows out candles, so you’re in bed at 9pm when the lights go out. I met a few cool travelers there, but other than that I just relaxed on the beautiful beaches. An incredible end to the crazy trip.

I hope you’re all doing well and that I didn’t ramble too much.

Take care,


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Traveling pics: Cambodia and Istanbul

Cambodia - May 2007

Angkor whaaaat?

Which statue is the best looking? - Bridge at Angkor Wat

It was incredible to see these massive trees growing through the temples.

A cuttlefish hunting during a night dive - Sianookville, Cambodia

Shirali. Obviously. God they are terrible at this game. - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

"The forefront of Pajamas" - these are the most incredible pants Ive ever worn, and I'm trying to covert to only warning Gan Tan Muy (spelling ?) pants, mostly worn by elderly Cambodia fishermen. I'm still working on how to make them "business casual"

"A three hour tour...", the boat to Rabbit Island, when i was sure it was going to sink (notice the foot of water in the bottom of the boat). No, I'm not sure why that guy isn't wearing pants.

The incredible interaction after escaping the sinking boat with the Cambodians who spoke no English.

The incredibly happy woman who lived where I stayed on Rabbit Island.

My incredible bungalow. Cambodia was aggressively relaxing.

Can't ask for a better sunset. Rabbit Island, Cambodia.

Istanbul- June, July 2007

The Istanbul skyline, including the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, from a ferry across the Bosphorous (how I came to work today...the most relaxing commute ever)

Me in front of the Blue Mosque, the largest, most famous mosque in Istanbul.

Istanbul during the day from the bridge connecting Asia and Europe.

Cliff jumping outside the city.

Me at the Turkish Bath after being accosted with foam and a flaming stick. yes, they wrap your head in a ridiculous towel turban when you come out.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

East African Travels


I hope you all are doin well! Its been another month without an email, and this month has definitely been the most interesting yet. I’m getting close to ending my time abroad, and its crazy to think I’ll be back home in just a few weeks. I’m actually already on a long route back to the US, and am writing from the Bangkok airport on my way to spend 2 weeks in Cambodia and Thailand visiting some friends. A bit random of a detour (I only decided 5 days ago to come here), but should be great. I’ve already noticed that there are way more Asians than in Africa, the food is much better, and the toilets have seats (in the airport at least). For more incredibly insightful comments, read on.

The last time I wrote I had just finished a Safari in Kenya, and after a short time I returned to Uganda and headed straight for the Nile. I had such a good time when I rafted the Nile a few weeks earlier with my mzungu friends, Pat and Nick, that I decided to head back for some kayaking lessons. I’ve got to say that the lodge where I stayed on the banks of the river is one of my favorite places on the planet. Its super laid back, and full of interesting travelers, and every night is a pretty crazy party complete with blaring 90s pop songs that make you sing at the top of your lungs. By day, the lodge overlooks the mighty Nile, and is covered trees with lots of curious monkeys. I took 3 days of kayaking lessons, and by the end I could hold my own on the river, was able to reliably roll my kayak (ok fine, I can do it about 85% of the time), and made it down a class 3 rapid. I really enjoyed getting out on the river, and may have found myself a new hobby for back in the states. Just what I need…another hobby.

After a while back at work, I finished up in Mbale and packed my bags to meet my travel buddies Pat and Nick in Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. We met in a sleepy town called Moshi right at the base, but the mountain was covered in clouds when I arrived. Early the next morning I got my first glimpse of Kili, and was floored. I could not believe that we would be walking to the summit. Kili is the largest free standing mountain in the world, essentially meaning that no mountain in the world looks bigger from the base. It is 19,400 ft. tall, and shoots up over 15,000 feet over the Tanzanian savannah. To put that in perspective, Mt. Everest raises 9,000 feet from the base camp to the peak (granted, those 9,000 feet are infinitely more difficult to climb than the 15,000 of Kili). The trek lasted 6 days and we hiked over 60 miles. Just like Mt. Elgon in Uganda, the hike started in the deep jungle, where we were often surrounded by curious monkeys, and passed through 5 distinct climates on the way to the peak. The day we summited the mountain was incredibly long. We woke up with the sun and began the day’s 8 hour hike by 9am. We arrived at the camp where we’d start the final ascent by 5pm, had dinner and rested for a bit until 10pm. Of our group of 5 climbing the mountain, 2 had already dropped out from altitude sickness and didn’t even attempt the summit. Just before midnight we started the final 7 hour climb up 4,000 vertical feet. You have to approach at night because towards the top you hike on glaciers that are too soft to hike on during the day. We lost Pat along the way to altitude sickness, so only Nick and I remained. Then, at about 4am with about 1,500 vertical feet left to climb, our guide got severe altitude sickness, and without a guide Nick and I almost turned back. At this point I was exhausted. We had been truding up the mountain for 4 hours in the dark along slippery gravel where you’d take a step, and the mountain would mockingly send you half a step back. The moon had set, so we couldn’t see the top, and had no idea if we were even close. Just before sunrise, we hiked past a big boulder, and were suddenly at the top of Kili’s crater rim to watch one of the most incredible sunrises I have ever seen, literally miles above the clouds. We had about an hour left to hike, but with the peak in sight, it was no problem, and we finally made it to Uhuru peak (Meaning ‘Freedom peak’ in Swahili) just past 7am. I was definitely running on adrenaline, and once I finally made it to the top it ran dry. The altitude quickly hit me, and the lack of oxygen suddenly made me feel dizzy and drunk (both very common symptoms of altitude), and I couldn’t get off the mountain quick enough. We finally made it back to camp at about 10am, and I realized that we had been hiking for 18 of the past 25 hours. It was definitely one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but also one of the best.

We took a day to rest, and left early the next morning to head to Zanzibar, an island paradise on the Indian Ocean. Buses don’t really have a schedule in Africa, you just go to the bus park and wait for a bus going in your direction to fill up, which can sometimes mean waiting for hours in the hot African sun. Somehow, we lucked out and got on a big comfortable bus, and only had to wait 10 minutes for it to leave. The road was also surprisingly smooth, compared to the potholed disasters that are the roads in Uganda and Kenya. Things were going well, and about to get better. When we arrived in Dar Es Salaam, we had missed the last ferry to Zanzibar. We ended up bartering to get a chartered flight to Zanzibar in a 4 seater plane for only a few bucks more than the ferry. The plane was so small that Pat had to sit in the co-pilots seat, and he actually had a full set of controls in front of him. Definitely a great way to see the island for the first time. We arrived in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital, and I’m still not sure if its actually a real place. Zanzibar was a major trading route in the Indian Ocean, so even thought its only about 50 miles off the coast of Tanzania, it feels way more like the middle east than Africa. This crazy clash of cultures, combined with an incredibly old town built on sidewalk-width streets makes for an unbelievable experience. My favorite thing to do there was just to get lost in the town. We’d get to a tiny intersection, and just pick the coolest looking street to go down, or where there was a group of people or something interesting. It felt like a ride at Disney world, maybe Pirates of the Caribbean, where we were slowly passing by and the flickering candle and person I saw in the window very well could have been some crazy animatronics. By about 10pm on the day we arrived we had stumbled upon a plaza by the ocean with a lively market. At the market, we heard about a crazy full moon party in the north, and what were we to do but find a car and drive the 1.5 hrs to the party. We finally got there just before midnight, and hung out on the beach, dancing and swimming in the moonlight, until sunrise, when I realized that only 48 hours earlier I had been standing on the top of Kilimanjaro, and I was completely exhausted. We finally made It back to our hotel in Stone town by about 9am. That day we were heading to the laid back beaches on the eastern part of the island, and our car had to go off the main road because it was flooded due to heavy rains. Well, the side roads weren’t any better, but this didn’t stop our driver from plowing directly into 3 ft of water, sinking the tiny sedan. Water began rushing in through the doors, and we quickly climbed out of the windows and tried to rescue our bags from the trunk, but they were already soaked. We helped push the car out of the water, and then found a new car on the main road and continued the journey to the east. This was definitely the most gorgeous and tranquil beach I’ve ever been to. With the exception of a handful of toursists, cute local kids, and women who would wade into the water in full dresses and Muslim head coverings to farm seaweed, we were the only people around. After Kili and the crazy travel to get there, the R&R was much needed. We also went sailing on a traditional Dhow, hunted octopus, and got in some scuba diving, but for the most part, we did a whole lot of nothing – exactly what you should do on a beach like that.

I just left Nairobi, Kenya, where I was working with a very young MFI (11 clients!) called EPS. I worked with the director of EPS in Uganda, and he is an absolutely brilliant man. He’s interested in growing EPS, and developing innovative financial products that will help poverty alleviation – something I definitely want to be a part of. and I’m looking to become involved in EPS long term. I’ll likely help them to develop efficient and scalable procedures, and help with fundraising in the states (Yes, that means that I’ll be asking you all for money to help grow EPS). EPS has already developed a place in the community by developing a way to combine environmental and financial programs in a very innovative way, and received an award and a grant from the World Bank for this program about 2 years ago. That project is currently winding up, and EPS is looking to expand more broadly into microfinance. They currently focus on serving the poor in the slums in Nairobi, but have aspirations to eventually expand into rural Kenya. I spent some time in the slums here, and its terrible to see the conditions people are living in. People are living on top of each other in tiny shacks, there is trash everywhere, and sanitization is a huge problem. There is very little clean water, which is very expensive, and toilets are incredibly expensive as well. So, many people resort to using flying toilets, which means they go to the bathroom into a plastic bag, and just throw it up into the air. Seriously. It smells terrible all over the slums. I saw many poor people living rurally, and many of them have next to nothing, but they usually have land and can grow a small amount of food and usually have access to relatively clean water. In the slums, its an entire different story, and a seemingly insurmountable problem, and its great to be a part of something that could make a positive difference.

I’m going to spend the next 2 weeks helping to develop EPS, but I looked into plane flights home, and it turns out that it was just as cheap to fly through Thailand as it was to fly directly back to the US, so I’ll be spending those 2 weeks working on the beaches on Thailand and Cambodia. I’m here visiting a few NU grads who are living in the capital of Cambodia, Nick Lazos, Andrew Cashin, and Jenn Carter – should be a blast! Looking forward to seeing some temples, scuba diving, doing lots of relaxing on the beach, and ummm…I mean, working very hard on EPS. Haha. Once I get back I’ll have one week in SF to wrap things up with Kiva, and then I’ll be back in Chicago by June 1.

See you all soon!


Traveling pics - Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and EPS

Kilimanjaro in all its Glory.

My First glimpse of Kili. 'Wait a minute, you mean we're walking there?'

Hiking through the Jungle.

Our group trekking through the clouds.

From left (2 spaniards on a honeymoon - wierd honeymoon, me with an awesome sweatband, Nick, Pat, and our bastard guide who got altitude sickness and almost kept Nick and I from reaching the peak)

A clear view of the western face of Kili.

At midnight, Pat, me, and Nick preparing for the 7 hour hike to the summit.

We're almost there (at about 18,500 feet)! The peak is in sight, and what a sunrise to keep us goin.

Just awesome.

Hemp Glacier at surnrise.

WE MADE IT!!!!! Uhuru peak (Freedom peak) at 19,400 feet. Now get me off this damn mountain ASAP!

Relaxing at the camp at about 10,000 ft, the night that we summitted. Has there ever been a better time for a kilimanjaro? I think not.

A great view of Kili through the jungle on the way down. We passed through 5 distinct climates on the hike.

Ahhhhh....Zanzibar. What a way to relax after Kili.

This was the reminants of when our car sank (the water was waist deep in the car before we drained it).....

....after our taxi driver tried to drive us through this.

Beautiful beaches. The kids were hysterical. They would come up and start playing all over you like you were a jungle gym, then head off. Here they were helping Pat and I with our sand castle extravaganza 'sand town'.

This is how far our room was from the deserted beach. I could get used to this.

Nice sunset. With a traditional sailing vessel called a dhow, built with no nails.

The crazy streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar.

They had the coolest doors. Even crappy old buildings had awesome carved doors. And the brass pegs were so Elephants couldnt break the door down. Whoa.

Jane, one of EPS's borrowers in Makuru slum, Nairobi.

The river running through Makuru slum. Yes, they drink this water.

A cute kid in Kibera slub, Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa.