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.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I write this from Egypt, two days after the goodbyes. I’m not far from Israel, just 30 minutes down the Sinai coast, at a little beach called Paradise Sweir (or Paradise Swire, depending on which sign you’re looking at – we still aren’t sure what it means). We meant to get farther down the coast, but the taxi driver insisted that we first check this place out, surely out of the goodness of his own heart and not because he has a deal worked out with the owner. Turns out it’s really nice: the tiny shacks have an outlet, lighting, and a wicked view of the Gulf of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia 20 kilometres across the water, and to top it off lodging is 5 Egyptian pounds a night (5 pounds to one US Dollar). They make their money off of the food, but even this is perfectly reasonable – last night for instance we all sat down banquet style to a giant platter of makluba (rice stewed with vegetables, beans, and meat) for 35 pounds each. No one walked away from that meal hungry. I’m here with 8 people from the institute and my good friend Noah, who’s in the region for 3 months. Noah remarked this morning, after waking up with the sun, having a big breakfast of falafel, foul, salad, and pita, and chatting by the sea for a few hours, that this is the kind of place you could lose yourself at for months if you weren’t careful – good food, cheap everything, people filtering through from all over the world, beautiful scenery. But Monday morning he’ll head for the epitome of bustle that is Cairo, and I will head back to Israel for one last night before catching a plane back to Toronto at noon on Tuesday. This few days is a welcome period of unwinding after the end of the semester.

The Arava Institute portion of this masters degree is over – no more kibbutz, no more PELS, no more interdisciplinary environmental classes, no more intentional peace-building community. Granted, the tiny desert studies academic institution I’ll find myself at next year is still a couple steps removed from the world of work and commerce (what some people call the “real world”), but I may never again find myself involved so intensely in such a tight-knit community hell bent on group discovery, discussion, and social change. This past year has been almost like a year-long summer camp for adults, only with classes, exams, and papers. Everyone should be so lucky to have this kind of experience at least once in their life – I can see why so many people have a hard time leaving, and keep coming back in whatever capacity they can. I feel like this is the kind of blog post that calls for a summing up, a deep analysis of the experience to digest the entirety of a year at the Machon into a readymade manifesto, story, metaphor, poem, song…to make a map of the experience at the proper scale and hold it in my hands so that I can return to it and find my way around again. I’ll do what I can.

Taking the Machon’s surroundings as an arbitrary starting point, it is notable that this program finds itself in the middle of the Arava Valley, one of the driest places on earth, on a desert kibbutz. The placement of the kibbutz has many explanations, depending on your perspective. On the one hand it is a triumph of ruach (spirit) that a group of bright-eyed nineteen-year-old kids decided they were going to plant themselves into the hot desert sands and build a new garden of eden – it is indicative of the particular Zionist spirit that they saw only a bright world ahead, that they could use their own hands, their own sprit, their own resources and creativity to coerce the desert into a state of blooming paradise. What a feat of imagination! And if you look at the product of it today, this particular kibbutz remains socialized, is one of the most diverse and thriving (though this is a relative term) kibbutzim in the area. Concessions have been made, growing melons and onions was abandoned, Thai workers have been hired, but new directions have also been struck with the algae factory and the new Arava Power Company. And if you look at Ketura from above, you see a carpet of green in the midst of a blanket of sand.

On another hand, this wasn’t just a few kids striking out on their own into the desert on their own initiative– for generations planning policy in Israel has been strategic first and environmental, social, and economic second. The Zionist spirit thus has another blade, and that is an expansionist one, neurotically ethnocentric and protective of the Jewish nature of the state, militant and based on a self-conscious effort to revolutionize the nature of the Jew from bookish and weak to a very socialist version of the peasant prodigy – strong, self-sufficient, ideologically driven by allegiance to the Jewish collective. Nowadays we think of Israel as almost an extension of American Foreign policy –Americans looking back might be shocked and uncomfortable with how much it looked like socialism in theory and practice in the early days. The pain of discrimination and violent anti-Semitism left its mark on this new mentality – no one could convince one of these early settlers that they would be safe again unless they were self-governing, ethnically pure, and outwardly strong, and you’d have even less chance of it with the Jews who fled during and after World War II. The rallying cry of “a land without a people for a people without a land” echoed throughout the Jewish world, and the mentality of those “New Jews” was reflective of this – the vast Arab population majority and the 500 Arab villages then in Turkish then British Palestine proper were a temporary impediment to the reclamation of the land as a Jewish State, at best potential brothers and partners in the future Jewish State, at worst animals to be cleared out of the way in its establishment by a variety of means. The “clear, open desert” that those 19 year old kids found themselves in had been formerly the home of semi-nomadic Bedouin who happened to be in the way of this Zionist dream, and who now find themselves in a position of “sign all your historic land claims away for an foreign sedentary lifestyle or live in a pocket of third world in the midst of a newly OECD country”. Still wrapped around Ketura are the remnants of the old quadruple layer barbed-wire fence, a reminder that these settlements filled the Zionist dream in two ways – they made the desert bloom and they held the enemy at bay, forming the skin of the new flourishing ethnocracy.

Looking at the desert on another plane of thought, another dialectic of no less importance emerges, that between the urge toward conquest and the urge toward awe. In the first semester, for the environmental anthropology class, our assignment was to generate an ethnography of kibbutz members about their relationship to the environment, and I personally was struck by how much living in the desert structures the thought of those who live here, even when they’ve been removed from the search for basic needs like the constant search for fresh water and the need to beat the heat during the hottest months (thanks to AC). One woman said that she feels the presence of the desert surrounding her all the time, and finds the openness soul-freeing. Others find it too open, the barrenness oppressive. For some people, the desert is a challenge to which we must rise, to others it is a force before which we must humble ourselves. Both of these stances have their time and place, but often one wonders why settle the desert at all? For all of our conquering, the kibbutzim here are stuck in a ridiculous situation – their economies are based around dairy and dates. The dates can live in salty water, which is great because that is what comes out of the fossil aquifer (meaning it doesn’t recharge. When it’s gone, it’s gone), but they need 1000 litres of it per tree per day! If the dates seem unsustainable, the cows just seem like lunacy – they need water all day, especially in the summer, to cool down, and they’re certainly not grazing on any lush pastures within 500 kilometres of Ketura. Though I said the kibbutzim are successful, they’re still financially on a shoestring, and need to keep mining water to survive. No one really knows how much is left in the aquifer – the battle against the limitations of the desert is sure to end in failure if carried out in the same way as it is today. But a change in tactics is taking place, one that seems to respect the desert for what it is rather than trying to make it what it is not – the Arava Power Company is set to open up heaps of photovoltaic operations beginning in the next couple years, and the vision for the region is to shift to this sort of economy.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the most important lesson I’ve taken away from the Machon is that we always live at the intersection of so many dialectics, dynamic contradictions and paradoxes that structure the limitations of our thoughts and actions. Noah is fond these days of quoting Saul Bellow, “where there is no paradox there is no life.” Left wing versus right wing, security versus freedom, intuition versus rationality, social versus natural, local versus global, thought versus action – find yourself clinging entirely to one of these poles and you’ll find that you are entirely stuck, with no chance of progressing. The world is always changing, faster every day, and thus being stuck puts you in quite an unfavourable position. The theme of this year’s Children’s Peace Theatre show in Toronto, which I will be helping to organize, is “the spaces in between”. Caught in the sticky web threaded through these dialectics is our situation in this world, and there’s no escaping it. We are brothers and sisters in our feeling of thrownness – we wake up into the world as if from a dream of a perfect garden and enter a stranger one where there’s no certainty and no hard and fast rules or answers.

At the Machon we wake up from the strange dream of our lives and enter into an even stranger one still, where enemies become friends and whatever you thought you knew turns out to be, not wrong per se, but only a few threads in a tapestry so large that trying to step back from it becomes dizzying. All of this sounds very abstract, and when it hits you, as it does at least once daily, the amazing nature of set-up we’ve got at the Machon, it can seem all too easy – the cultural exchange is smooth, the laughter and affection are abundant, the community seems strong. But behind each person is a tangle of personal history, cultural history, family ties and loyalties to good friends, a formal education, an informal education, a hundred mentors and pieces of advice and wisdom clung to, a thousand formative experiences, joys, and sorrows. Still we must all sink our roots somewhere, and form some identity out of this tangle. When we get to the Arava desert for the AIES program the sands prove too shifting for our formerly comfortable roots and we confusion sets in. It is a telling sign of the shock of this upheaval that one of the most common suggestions in the end of semester student program evaluation was a staff psychologist.

The final days were rushed – final papers kept people occupied, or at least on edge, while cleaning, packing, and the impending goodbye made writing those papers feel even worse - with so much still do say and do, so much still to learn from one another, too many stories still untold, who cares about a grade? But no matter how free we all were, a three day intensive listening circle would only have proved the endless nature of the journey we all have started here. I may find myself in fertile soil again, but my roots will always be restless and searching, never again complacent. Already the calls of longing across the internet have begun, and we have instituted a monthly picnic somewhere accessible to everyone. And though we may lose touch with many of the people over the years, we know that somewhere out there are 45 people who have shared this experience, and who were at one time as close as family.

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