My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Up and Down, Side to Side

I apologize for the delay, this past week has been an incredibly interesting one, with not much time for a breath! Classes have rolled along, and people have settled into the rhythm of the place. In other words, the honeymoon period is nearing its end, and no longer is there an urgency to stay out in the quad until all hours so as not to miss a thing. We remember that school involves work, and so reading groups and discussion groups spring up alongside the gardening committees. It feels like a bit of a shame, turning summer camp back into school, but that, after all, is what we are here for! To become the environmental leaders of our generation, we’ve got to learn. But those first days have really paid off. I think everyone feels as if they’ve gotten to know everyone else enough to sit down next to them in the Kibbutz cafeteria and have a good conversation, or greet them with a warm smile/high five/big hug (depending on the cultural background and comfort level).

But wait, you probably ask, this all seems too easy. Can co-existence really be as simple as throwing everyone together and doing a few ice breakers? The answer is, of course, no. This is a really special place, set aside from all other influences in the middle of the desert. The second thing is that until one night this week there had been no explicit talking about the conflict, and where everyone stood in it. This is not only a natural thing for us to do, but is by design in the program. It is incredibly important for us to develop our personal relationships before we start talking about these things. An altercation caused by an emotional disagreement with someone you have just met can lead to a permanent rift, while the same thing with someone you have already become close with often leads to becoming even closer. This, at least, is the story that keeps coming back to us from former students here.

And so, at PELS last Sunday, we spent the entire three hours going over the principles of compassionate listening and laying out guidelines for talking about sensitive issues, and then talking about conflict mediation theory. I could see that to many of us it felt like going to a workshop on how to build a bookshelf and getting a lecture on the basic theories of geometry and physics. “Let’s get down to it! Let’s scuffle and hammer this thing out!” This opinion was voiced by a couple of people present – why are we dealing with such abstract things! We’ve talked about conflict for three hours and not a single word about the Middle East. The answer given these people was simple – “Patience. We’ll get to that soon enough, as you will as a matter of course. For now we must learn how to talk about these things, before we can actually do it.” And sure enough, they were right – but first to Jerusalem!

My parents were in town this week hiking with the One Family Fund to raise money for victims of terrorism. If anyone who gave them money is reading this, thank you for sending my parents to me! I got to go up to Jerusalem last weekend and stay with them, taking part in the One Family Fund activities. This included a five hour guided tour of the old city, lots of good food, and getting to meet some great people. We also spent a fair bit of time with some family friends who are in Israel for a year, living in Jerusalem. Getting an insight into what it’s like to be a liberal North American in the midst of such an intense place was interesting.  Jerusalem is beautiful, endlessly fascinating, but undeniably heavy.

Here is a view of the sunrise on a hike with my parents, taken over the gulf of Eilat with Jordan in the distance.

And here, of course, is ha Horim Sheli!

But here’s the thing that made my week so interesting: You go to Jerusalem, and you can see it all from a single vantage point. You see the old city, and beyond that, the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, still almost entirely separate from the Jewish areas even though Israel officially annexed them. You look into the distance and you can see that beyond such and such a point is the West Bank. You realize that THIS is what the entire ruckus is about, right here. As the tour guide pointed out, according to a mixture of biblical and secular history, the mount where the dome of the rock stands was the place where Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac/Ishmael, then the place of the first temple, then the second temple, the seat of the Jewish Empire, then conquered by Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Muslims again, and so on and on. This is disputed territory. Even within religions the different sects muscle each other around the real estate.

I then went for dinner with my parents, and a number of speakers were telling their heart-wrenching stories about losing their children to terrorism. There is something entirely intractable about this kind of loss and pain – something that can never be reconciled with politics. You can only weep. Coming home from the dinner at around midnight, I came across the first circle in the quad explicitly discussing the conflict. This was prompted by watching the movie Bil’in Habibti, about the protests at the separation barrier that have happened every week since 2005 in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank. This is probably the most egregious case of Israel simply using the barrier to expropriate land for settlements, uprooting olive trees, and disregarding the Palestinian residents. The result has been the formation of a non-violence resistance movement at Bil’in. I mostly sat and listened as people poured their hearts into the discussion, and I watched as a number of people applied the and explicitly talked about the stuff we learned at PELS.

Anyway, it is now the weekend, time for relaxing and catching up. I’ve been very busy this week, and need to catch up on some readings – about how to store excess renewable energy production for future use, about ancient agriculture in the desiccated Uvda Valley, about Health Impact Assessments, and about mycorrhiza! Am I overwhelmed? Yes :-). Am I having fun? You bet's a story I wanted to fit in but couldn't find a place for:
In a cab ride recently, the driver asked me if I didn't go into the army in Canada.  I said no.  He looked shocked - why not? he demanded.  Very few people do, I answered, it's not a big army.  He tried to understand, and just shook his head.  .

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

There's School and there's Learning

Orientation is over, and the real work around here has begun. Our first class was on Sunday, an uncredited compulsory class called Peace Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS) - it is classes like this that attracted me to the Arava Institute in the first place. PELS is a class that everyone takes, and its goal is to bring everyone together to develop skills like mediation, conflict resolution, compassionate listening, and so on, and also to provide an open and controlled space for students to confront the “conflict”. I have heard that this class often dissolves into tears, shouting, and frustrations, only to be followed further by resolutions, hugs, and singing. So far, however, none of this has materialized, and the atmosphere around here has been incredibly relaxed. Everyone wants to learn everyone else’s language, and concern for environmental issues does a very good job of bringing everyone together to learn. But we’ve only all been here for a few days, so we’ll see how things go
In the first PELS class, the major activity that we ran was an identity card swap, where we all put our cards and passports in the middle and spent some time examining each other’s official identity. We talked about how we each feel about them, whether we identify with the body that issued us the cards, and how we feel about being identified with it by other people. I, of course, am extremely grateful to have my Canadian passport. Though I’m a little frustrated with the Federal government and Canadian politics (especially the government’s dragging of its feet over climate change –!), I identify strongly as Canadian and am proud to be a Canadian. I am also grateful for the way I am treated abroad as a Canadian. I don’t think that I would have trouble going anywhere with this identity. The Israelis, on the other hand, were more ambivalent not so much about being proud to be Israeli, but about how the world receives them. Apparently, just as Americans travelling abroad say that they’re Canadian to avoid hassle, Israelis claim to be Italian! Also, with an Israeli passport many countries are off limits (as they are for me with an Israeli Visa and stamp in my passport). The Palestinians also did not feel ambivalent about being Palestinian, but have a different experience with their identity cards than even the Jordanian citizens have with their passports. While having an ID card means the right to travel within the territories, it also means subjection to the huge number of checkpoints dotting the West Bank, and often (but not usually), subjection to hassle, wasted time, and humiliation.
Yesterday I went to my first classes, Archaeology/Human Ecology and Alternative Energy Policy and Management. I’m enrolled in a bit of a mish-mash of environmental classes, since after all I’m completing the environmental studies specialization of the BGU masters. The other courses I’m taking are Environmental Anthropology, Environmental Education, and Eco-Health. The classes are taught in English, and so it is sometimes a bit of a challenge to keep everyone on the same page, especially since everyone is at a different stage in their education. A large number of the Arab students have first degrees in engineering, and others in biology or chemistry, and they’re studying thermodynamics next to people who haven’t taken science in 5 years. The classes are very lively though, with a lot of discussion, sometimes heated (for those of you who know Israelis, this shouldn’t surprise you). There’s a lot getting off the ground in student life from gardening to Arabic and Hebrew lessons and English writing tutoring to hiking and music. Everyone’s still in flux and getting adjusted to being back in school, but we should settle into some sort of rhythm pretty soon.
The sun is shining and the birds are just beginning to migrate south to Africa from Europe through the corridor of the Arava Valley. The days are getting shorter and the nights slightly cooler, though I haven’t used a blanket since I arrived. Also, my parents are coming into Israel this weekend for a brief charity walk with One Family Fund. Yay!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music and Laughter

Coming back to my room, it is now one o’clock in the morning. I don’t want to go to bed yet; there are still people hanging out in the quad and I don’t want to miss a minute of this special time when everyone is still settling in, figuring each other out, and high off of just arriving to begin the program. I feel though that if I don’t go to bed soon I will fall asleep in the grass. So just to give you a brief glimpse of how things look around here, here is a brief tour around the tiny quad outside of the Arava Institute Dorms. There are a few people gathered around a guitar, played by a lanky Israeli hippie who’s trying desperately to get out of the army reserves – they are singing Hebrew songs, almost all of which gravitate around A minor, C, and G. I join in here and there on another guitar or my harmonica, sometimes trying to sing along. I take the lead and play moondance, and Gabe, an 18 year old American kid from Cleveland, rips on the Sax. A little further down from us on the grass a few Americans are laughing and chatting with some Israelis and a Palestinian or two. Gabe and I spend about 45 minutes taking a Capoeira lesson from one of the Israelis who has just returned from Brazil – it is one of the fundamental differences between Americans and Israelis that they get down to business with school only after 2-3 years in the army, maybe one of community service, and then big year-long trips around the world to India, South America, East Asia, the US. Most of the Israelis in the program are 22-24, and have never gone to any post-secondary schooling before. Their life experience, however, is incredible. After drinking about a litre of water and cooling off on the grass I head over to the area where the Arab students have set up a couple hookahs and are laughing and talking away in Arabic. The circle is dotted with Americans and Israelis, but the conversation is mostly in Arabic – for the Arabic students the day today was full of choosing classes, registration, filling out forms, and all that other administration stuff that is the necessary evil of running an institution, all in a language that even the most advanced of them are not thinking in yet. How exhausting! The conversation often turns to asking each other how to say certain words and phrases in each other’s respective language, laughing as we try to pronounce the words. Over a little bit, Wa’ad and Yasmiin are trying to teach a few Israelis some Arabic dancing.

Music is coming from all around and the soft sounds of chatter and laughter pervade the space. Everyone is incredibly welcoming to each other, a hopeful sign for the months ahead. Getting to know one another and getting a sense of where we are all coming from will be very important once we start talking politics, as in the compulsory non-credit course called Peace-building and Environmental Leadership seminar, or PELS. This is where we get down to the dirty business of talking about why things are not always as pleasant as they are behind the scenes, out of context in a magical no-man’s-land such as the Arava Institute. I don’t know where the quote is from, but I remember it well: If you stand beside a person at the bus stop for ten minutes and say nothing, you may not ever think about him or her again. But speak for one minute, find out about their children, their job, some music they like, and you may just feel willing to jump out in front of that bus to save their life. Yell at them for an hour about your differences of opinion, and you may become friends for life – this is how the Arava Institute supposedly works. Anyway, I’m going to sleep – will be in touch soon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


It is really pretty interesting that in my last post I mused about how near and yet so far Israel and Jordan are from each other, specifically Eilat and Aqaba which literally share a small stretch of coastline.  Well, on a spur of the moment plan, a few of decided to spend our last couple days before school started on a whirlwind trip across the border to Aqaba and up to Petra, staying the night first on the beach in Eilat and then in a Bedouin tent.  To get the theatrics over now, here is the view from the main siq in Petra, walking down a stone path with 50 meter stone walls around you, imagining the endless stream of caravans from the east carrying spices and eastern goods to trade.  Getting to the end, the most miraculous wonder of Petra, build by Nabateans about 300 BC, is the Treasury, a near immaculately preserved facade 50 meters tall.  It is largely this iconic image that won Petra membership among the new seven wonders of the world. Pictured below is the Treasury in all its glory:

So how did this trip come about?  Well, in honor of Juliette's (one of the volunteers) departure to Tel Aviv and the beginning of school for the Arava Institute students, we decided to take a little trip.  Juliette, who knows about 6 languages, had met a Venezuelan woman on the bus from Tel Aviv to Ketura, and struck
up a conversation in spanish.  It turned out that this woman knew some Bedouin around the Petra area, who hooked us up with a car, a tour of Petra, and a place to sleep in Wadi Musa, the modern town built up around Petra.  They were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and even invited us to their family home in Wadi Musa, but more on that later.  The whole trip from start to finish probably cost only 150 canadian, and that’s including bus, car, food, tour, and accommodations.  Not Bad!  The following pictures are a little photo essay about the trip.

The first night we spent on a beach in Eilat, camping out on a pier looking back on the city.  Camping is much more relaxed in Eilat than it would be in, say, Florida.  This is a picture looking into Jordan from our camping spot at sunrise.
   In the morning we had to cross the Jordanian border, which cost us about 25 dollars canadian.  The change in atmosphere between Eilat and Aqaba was more drastic than between Toronto and Tel Aviv.  You could feel it in the air.  Especially striking was the shot of one of the members of the Jordanian Royal Family with the flag waving in the background.  It was then that we really felt we had entered not just a new country, but a whole new culture.  On the drive up from Aqaba to Petra we got lost, and had to ask a Bedouin man, his family at his side, where to go.  This was the only good picture we got of them before they ran from the camera.  Here is a picture of Ibrahim, our tour guide through Petra.  He was brilliant in many aspects, like physically knowing the place like the back of his hand and taking us through much less travelled areas, but the history we were likely to get from him was not exactly textbook.  At one point he suggested that if I had trouble believing him I should go read the sign to find out what the "government" said about the place.Here are some pictures from our Bedouin experience.  One of the massive delicious dinner they made us, one of the outside of their house in Wadi Musa, one of the view from their house over Wadi Musa, and one of Gabe playing on the floor with one of their nieces, who's 5 months old.  They were lovely people, open and hospitable, and very lively.Finally, here is a very picturesque Bedouin with the Jordanian Desert in the background.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Eilat is an incredibly interesting place, different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I’d like to compare it to places in Florida, in the sense that there are big, majestic hotels everywhere, the majority of the people around are on vacation, and there are big malls, movie theaters, and boardwalks where the shopping is great if that’s your thing. The beaches, too, are fantastic, though a bit rocky, and packed with people. It was a holiday when we went, so tons of Israelis from all over the north were flocking down to Eilat do their shopping, relaxing, and snorkeling – come to think of it, Eilat is essentially all of Florida collapsed into a tiny area about 1/10,000 the size. It serves the same function – that of the vacation/resort spot in the south, but in the form of a city that is home to maybe 50,000 people. So we did what everyone else does when they go to Eilat – hit the beach!

Here are Gabe, Adi, and Phil in the chairs with Abra walking behind them.  You can see that the beach is not the kindest to tender feet.

It was a tiny beach, incredibly rocky and maybe only 100 meters long, but we could barely find a chair to plop ourselves down in. It didn’t take us long to discover why so many people came here though – you could see the reefs and shimmering colorful fish through the crystal clear water morphing to aquamarine and royal blue as your eye moved out to sea. We rented some snorkels and swam out to see the reefs off the shore, and I have to say it made me, for a short time, wish that I had chosen to study marine rather than terrestrial biology and ecology. I have an affinity for the outlandish and strange, and diving down to get a closer look at the bright purple corals with schools of tiny blue fish hovering around them, I really felt like an adventurer discovering new and wonderful life forms. At least twenty kinds of fish hung out around the reefs, all of them with their own unique and beautiful patterning and personality. And thinking about the movie sharkwater, which is probably the most powerful and gripping enviro-doc I’ve ever seen, the one thing that I wanted to see the most in the world and the least in the world at the same time was a shark. Readers may be relieved to know that the biggest fish I saw was this guy, about a foot long and eating bread out of a misguided tourist’s hand:

Probably the most interesting thing about Eilat was its proximity to Egypt on the one side, Jordan on the other, and even Saudi Arabia a little ways down the eastern gulf coast. Eilat and Aqaba are so very close in terms of distance, probably a 20 minute walk! Look the other way and you can see Sinai mountains, and you can even see Saudi Arabia down the Jordan coast, though it’s a little hazier. Since 1979 and 1994 Israel has had a peace with Egypt and Jordan respectively, but the remnants of the animosity are still visible in many places, such as the layers of rusting barbed wire surrounding our Kibbutz. I can only image how one might have felt standing in Eilat in 1977, before any peace treaties, and looking out at three countries that would have been happier if you didn’t exist, two of which having attacked your country only four years earlier. Here’s a google map of the area, so you can get a better idea:

Later that night, after walking the long boardwalk lined with cheap clothes and trinket sellers with a few bigger name stores spotting the walk, we caught wind of the first ever beer festival in Eilat. After receiving directions from a falafel seller, about five of us made it over there, drank some really nice international beers, and listened to a couple of Israeli cover bands. A couple of the guys in our group knew the Israeli covers, though I didn’t, but even I knew what was coming when they broke out into the opening riff for Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down. Hearing that song with an Israeli accent may be one of the things that has endeared me to this country the most so far. We finally caught the 1 o’clock bus back to the Kibbutz, a 35 minute ride, and collapsed into our beds.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Experimental Orchard

So the last few days I have been a little bit sick, starting with a little sore throat and spreading to my nose to the point where I feel like a magician pulling an endless kerchief out of my sleeve, only it’s mucus…from my nose…ok, bad image, but that’s how it feels. Why so sick in such a salubrious, hot, dry place you may ask? Well I haven’t been sleeping that much, and have been having a great time!  Those two things are by no means purely incidental. Two major events have dominated the scene since I last posted, so I’m going to take this post to fill you in on them. The first was the tour of the institute’s center for sustainable agriculture, and the second was yesterday’s trip to Eilat, my first trip off the Kibbutz (other than hiking in the little hills out back) since I got here almost two weeks ago.

Two days ago, Elaine Solowey, who will be my supervisor here at the Arava Institute, took us all out on a tour of the experimental orchard she founded about 25 years ago and which houses some unbelievable desert specimens from around the world. But collection is not the main agenda with her orchard – she is aiming to be a part of what she would call the second domestication. Agriculture began about 13,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and had independent foundings in a few other parts of the world like China and MesoAmerica. Through selection of seeds, farmers thousands of years ago domesticated essentially every single food that is eaten on a large scale today. But over the past fifty years, crop diversity, both species and genetic, has been rapidly declining as seed sales have conglomerated into fewer and fewer hands, and the demands of an international market for consistency lead to the same seeds and methods being practiced all over the world. Some put the number at about 2 percent a year. The concept of socio-ecological resilience is based around diversity and functional redundancy, and as those things decline, a system like the global food system is much more vulnerable to shocks.

A Marula Tree, native to Southern Africa, is one of the fruit trees that Elaine has successfully bred a couple lines of for high yield and big, juicy fruit.  It's related to the mango, but you just have to bite into the fruit, tear a hole in the skin, and suck out the delicious juice.  They're making it into brandy and fruit juice on the Kibbutz.

So Elaine is busy collecting wild desert plants with useful properties and attempting to domesticate them. As she says, she loves plants that “rejoice to be in the desert”, and most of the crops she’s working on use as much water in a year as the date palms next door use in a week, and need almost no pesticides or fertilizers. Her major success stories are four wild plants that she has selected over a few generations to the point where they can be planted commercially – one of which will be central to my life for the next two years: the Argan. This tree is endemic to about 100 million acres in Morrocco (now, due to deforestation and land use change, this is down to about 50 million), and is central to the lives of the people who live in the Argan forest. They use the tree for the oil contained in the nut of the fruit (which is also its trade value), but since the tree can remain green through periods where almost everything has gone dormant it can also provide much needed fodder for animals and shade when there’s nothing else around. It a beautiful tree with a very, very deep root system that flourishes in the driest of conditions and provides a very high quality oil, good fodder for animals, and extremely good wood when coppiced – Amazing! Looking around the experimental orchard, you’re struck by just how much valuable diversity and potential surrounds you.

This is a pitaya, the fruit of a cactus that Elaine has had success growing on the orchard and adapting to the extreme desert climate.  The varieties she's developed are now off to other growers.
A couple interesting side notes about Elaine for those interested: One is that she was in the news a lot a couple years ago because of her central involvement in the germination of an ancient date seed recovered in an excavation of Herod’s Temple! The seedling, named Methuselah (I would have voted for Rip Van Winkle :-), is now a couple years old and growing strong. We may have right here at the Institute the re-animation of the ancient Judean date palm, thought to be functionally extinct. Another fantastic story arose from a project of hers consisting of growing Tibetan medicinal herbs to help preserve some very rare specimens. It just so happened that when the Dalai Lama was in Israel, he caught wind of the project and had to see it himself. There is a wonderful picture of Elaine and the Dalai Lama arm in arm holding a Pitaya.

This last one is the Argan, which will be my intellectual darling for the next two years.  In the tree are goats (yes, goats).  There is a special breed of goats in Morrocco that climbs the trees looking for tender shoots amongst the sharp thorns, and the ripe fruit containing the precious nut.  In accounts dating back to the 17th century, a common experience is related about the fruit.  Upon cutting it open, you are met with an incredibly delectable, almost cloying smell.  Then you bite into the fruit and its taste makes you a little naseous.  I have to say, this is entirely true.
So what exactly will I be doing? People with aversions to science talk may want to stop reading now ;-). I will be examining the soil around the roots of the Argan to see what sort of creatures are symbiotic (literally, living together) with the tree roots. It is known that this tree is very mycorrhizal dependent, meaning that it grows much better when it has fungi infecting its roots. Here infecting is the technical term, and doesn’t mean they’re pathological, but the fungi really does penetrate the root cells. These fungi extend the surface area of the root system sometimes by as much as an order of magnitude, scavenging for scarce nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous in exchange for carbohydrates that the tree makes through photosynthesis. Since the trees are growing very well, and Elaine never inoculated them with any commercial strains of mycorrhiza, I want to figure out if they’ve recruited any little friends native to the soil here, and if so who they are. I’m pretty excited about it: symbioses are one of the most fascinating aspects of biology – and a potential way forward in thinking about sustainability.

So that’s a little taste of where I am and what I’ll be thinking about, I mean, besides navigating an explicitly multi-ethnic and very political living situation and program. Countdown till worlds collide: 8 days.


p.s.  I guess Eilat will have to wait for next time.  Oops.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A few thousand words

So I thought that I may be yammering on and on, without even giving you a picture to orient yourselves!  So this entry will be short on words, big on images.

This is a picture of, from left:
Me, Becca (volunteer), Liz (volunteer), Philip (Australian), Adi, Lauren, and Bennie Mac
We are at the top of the "mountain of electricity" where the power lines come in, overlooking the Arava Valley and the Kibbutz

This is a picture of the Kibbutz from a little lower.  You can see the date orchards accross the highway, and where the trees end in the background is essentially where Jordan starts.  The mountains you can see are Jordanian.

Here is a picture of a bunch of us in a Wadi (dry river bed) during one of our hikes.

Here is a picture of me touching a very sharp, thorny Acacia tree, some of which are green the whole year round despite the fact that they receive maybe three paltry days of rain a year.

Having a little fun, a few of us decided to decorate Adi's (orange shirt) door for his birthday today.  From left to right we are Benjamin Morgan, Me, Adi, Gabe (top) and Phil (bottom)

On a hike yesterday we got to see a rare and beautiful sight - a flower in full bloom in the desert - this one is a desert caper.

And finally, here's me having a little fun on my slackline around the pool area.  Don't worry mom, I'm wearing sunscreen.

It's a pretty good life around here.