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Lessons in an Arab-Israeli village

Lessons in an Arab-Israeli village, September 2010

By Simon Jacobs, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Mori Rothman of Yellow Springs, a student of Arabic at Middlebury College, Vt., teaches English to children at a summer camp Deir al-Assad

JACK and JENNIFER sit gloomily in the garden of marital discontent.

Lonesome JACK leans toward his despondent wife: “Jennifer, are you happy?”

A long moment passes, in which JENNIFER contemplates their bleak future. Finally, she answers: “Not really.”

So begins the dramatic saga of Jack and Jennifer, one of three one-act plays for which I was the 19-year-old kid director. This one was written in two weeks by a class of 25 fourth-grade students in Deir al-Assad, Israel.

In July, I taught English there for the third year at a homegrown summer camp. Eleven other volunteers taught with me.

Deir al-Assad is an Arab-Israeli village of approximately 8,000 people, built midway up a mountain in the northern reaches of Israel proper, near the Jewish city of Karmi’el.

The narrow streets that wind through the village are almost impossibly steep. This, compounded with the lack of traffic lights or signs, makes navigation difficult for the non-native. Traveling through town is a matter of knowing back-alley shortcuts, local landmarks (the glitzy neon minaret, for example) and the homes of all your many hundreds of relatives (two clans, Assadi and Dabbah, basically comprise the village).

The idea of an English summer camp emerged from my mother, Martha Moody Jacobs; her serendipitous outreach to Dr. Jamal Assadi, head of the English department at Sakhnin College, was an experience she wrote about for The Observer in 2008.

For two years, the camp was attended by around 100 students and taught by seven American volunteers. This year was a much larger operation: attendance began at 180 and eventually swelled to more than 300.

This time, however, we had 12 volunteers to manage it, who ranged in age from 19 to 84, in faiths from Catholic to Jewish.

Most were Daytonians but we drew people from Wyoming and Minnesota. A mix of undergraduate and recently-graduated students, from the likes of Kenyon College, Middlebury, Chicago and Cincinnati, in majors from political science to architecture, made up half of the group. Each teacher stayed with a different host family in the village.

I lived in the house of Mohamed and Omaima Dabbah, the parents of my “second family” abroad.

It was the third time I had stayed with this family, enough for them to dub me their “American son” and refurbish a bedroom for me on the first floor.

On the balcony of the Dabbah house, Jihad (R) bests his younger brother, Abed, at chess

Many nights, with Facebook or Lady Gaga in the background, some combination of the three sons and two daughters and I would set up on the long sofa in front of the television and watch the current World Cup game, all at varying levels of attentiveness: Jihad (21, watched like an intellectual strategist), Faten (18, distractedly), Abed (15, fiercely), Widad (15, indifferently) and Ahmad (11, enthusiastically).

When I met Jihad for the first time two years ago, I hardly had a chance to consider the stereotypical connotations of his name before I was whisked off to visit his friends and eat ice cream in Karmi’el. By the time we returned, the name’s meaning seemed utterly unimportant, irrelevant to his character. When I did ask, he translated it as “dedication” or “hard work.”

Sitting there during my third visit and watching the World Cup, I was reminded why I continue to return to Deir al-Assad: I feel at home here.

Hospitality is all-important; the least one can expect from even the most casual visit to a neighbor’s house is a cup of black coffee and a plate of fruit. It gives one the sensation of being an honored guest.

We taught six days a week, for three-and-a-half hours each morning, rotating classes between three teachers.

I taught a class each of third, fourth and fifth grade. In Israel, native Arabic speakers begin studying Hebrew in second grade, English in third.

My plan was to teach my students about the theatre, write a play with each class, and perform the plays for their parents at the camp’s closing ceremony.

When I wrote the first vocabulary word on the board in my formal, rudimentary Arabic (al-misrah, theatre), I received applause from the class. The first few days were fairly chaotic, and found hoarse, exhausted-looking teachers in the break room between classes.

In class, as we wrote the plays, I stood at the board and transcribed the dialogue shouted out by the class, while my greatly talented co-teacher Sawsan (herself a student at Sakhnin Teacher’s College) kept order in the back and occasionally served as a translator.

We reveled loudly in the artistic process. Plot decisions were made via democratic hand raising. Sawsan and I shared frequent looks of astonishment at what students came up with in their third language: fifth grade put Grandpa Alex in the hospital, fourth threw Jack and Jenn’s marriage into peril, third created a health-food obsessed tyrant named Sayid.

Here is a highlight:

Upon opening a gift from MARTHA, hospitalized GRANDPA ALEX (as played by Mohamed, perfecting a weary, ancient croak): Oh… chocolate. But I can’t eat it because I don’t have any teeth.

STEVE: What?! Why don’t you have any teeth?

ALEX: Because I’m 100 years old.

LUNA: You might not have any teeth, but your eyes are very beautiful.

My adoption into the Dabbah clan drew me to participate in a visit with the men of the family to “the land,” a family-owned plot of olive trees that needed to be tended to and watered. We returned home exhausted and sweaty.

“You see,” said Widad, who had previously extolled to me the easiness of her chores compared with her brothers’, “cleaning the house is much easier.”

I also attended Faten’s high school graduation, held in a large party hall near the entrance of town. Fifty-some graduates marched across the stage, shaking hands, capped and gowned, and greeted their waiting families on the other side. I was struck by the universality of a scene like this.

Shortly after, Jihad returned to Jordan, where he goes to college. University schooling in Israel is a somewhat more unlikely prospect for Arabs than for Jews. Restrictions in the Israeli education system (for example, certain areas of scientific study are unavailable to Arabs, for security reasons) drive many Arab-Israeli students to study abroad.

Jihad — considered a genius by his peers — wanted to study medicine at the University of Jerusalem, but was rejected two years in a row, he believes on the basis of the interviews, conducted in Hebrew.

He chose to leave the country in favor of a six-year medical program in Jordan. Upon completing it, he will probably take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, which will allow him to practice medicine wherever he wants, in the United States or his home country.

The population of Israel is more than 20 percent Arab, a relatively unacknowledged portion of the population, despite the genuine threat to their cultural identity posed by politicians like Avigdor Lieberman.

Still, most Arab-Israelis agree that they are better off under the Israeli government than under the Palestinian Authority, as they would be living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. In Israel, they have full citizenship, access to health care and education.

I believe that at least a small part of the warm welcome we received grew from the feeling of acknowledgement of its people because of our group’s involvement in their village. I sensed no antipathy when I told people I was Jewish; it made no difference in the breadth of the village’s hospitality.

Volunteers who taught children English in Deir al-Assad

Mori Rothman, a Yellow Springs resident, is fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic. A student at Middlebury College in Vermont, he said his second visit as an English teacher to Deir al-Assad rose above simple political divides and sought to “connect with the people of Deir al-Assad…on a deeply human level, to know them as people rather than labels, and to show them that I — a Jew born in Israel — respect them as people and view them as equals.”

The Saturday before our departure, a closing ceremony was held at the community center, and a large audience of parents, students and teachers filled the auditorium. Many of our volunteers performed with their students: Mori’s kids sang, Jenn’s danced. Hannah’s students demonstrated commands.

The mayor of Deir al-Assad granted my mother honorary citizenship for her work over the past four years.

My classes were only given time enough to perform one scene, so we selected the most dramatic: the hospital scene from the fifth-grade play. Albeit slightly out of context and given its off-the-cuff delivery, the audience laughed in the right places, was appropriately moved when Grandpa Alex discovered that he could walk again, and gave us a warm ovation at the end.

After the ceremony, we said goodbye to our students and host families.
“You are great. It was an honor to know you,” Sawsan said to me.

I thanked her sincerely for all her help and promised to see her next year. Because of course, I will continue going back to Deir al-Assad, as long as I have a bed somewhere. And after all, our plays need sequels.

Simon Jacobs is a sophomore at Earlham College pursuing a major in comparative languages and linguistics.

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