Pushing the Boundaries

Andrew Menges '12, Rachel Boylan '12, and Katie Hutchins '12 recount their experiences abroad in Labannon and adventures outside the country at a critical time in Middle Eastern history.

Last spring semester, the three of us studied at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. For most Americans, Beirut is not the place that first comes to mind when one thinks of the Middle East or study abroad. The city is far more developed and liberal than we had imagined. After 15 years of destructive civil war, ending in 1990, Beirut is experiencing a renaissance. The city is trying to reclaim its reputation as the Paris of the Middle East. While we by no means expected Beirut to be as conservative as other Middle Eastern cities, we were still surprised by how cosmopolitan Beirut actually is. The Lebanese take nightlife very seriously, men wear shorts, and the three of us saw less than ten women wearing burkas the entire semester.

However, while not noticeably touched by the Arab Spring, Lebanon is not without political tension. Two weeks prior to our arrival, the Lebanese government collapsed due to the majority of the cabinet members’ resignations. Needless to say, our plans to travel to Lebanon were put into question. Each of us received emails from friends and family warning us about the dangers of traveling to the Middle East. However, Lebanon’s history implies that moderate amounts of political instability do not impact daily life; and thus we began our journey. We were greeted by a country that seemingly did not notice its lack of government. The pace of life was laid back and friendly and the neighborhood in which we lived provided us with a safe and inviting home.

The city of Beirut is not the extent of what Lebanon has to offer. Due to the tumultuous Arab Spring, the majority of our travels were contained within Lebanon. Unbeknownst to us, Lebanon is home to phenomenally well-preserved Roman ruins at Baalbek, breath-taking caves at Jeita Grotto, world-class skiing at Faraya and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Byblos (Jbeil). Additionally, Lebanon has a diversity of climates, very little of which include desert. In fact, the majority of the sand in the country can be found on its beautiful Mediterranean beaches. In an effort to see all of the country, we signed up for a trip to southern Lebanon, run by the Cultural Club of the South whose allegiance is primarily with the political party Hizb’allah. In 2006, southern Lebanon was ravished by a war with Israel and one-fifth of the Lebanese population was displaced. Today, the countryside has regained its idyllic reputation, but there are hints of the past, particularly near the Israeli border where the land is covered with land mines.

Overall, our experience in Beirut and Lebanon was fantastic. We were met with warm hospitality, great food and a lot of sunny weather. Amid a tense political situation, the Lebanese carried on with their lives normally and were able to show us the best of what Lebanon has to offer.

Our experiences in Palestine were radically different from those in Lebanon, even though we had only traveled 150 miles. The culture in Palestine is more conservative: Muslim women almost unanimously wear head scarves, whereas in Lebanon wearing a head scarf was not as culturally imposed. Male-female relations were much more stigmatized and as Americans we were constantly aware of how the Palestinian community perceived our actions. The conservative culture was especially apparent through our homestays with Palestinian families in Bethlehem. This was particularly illuminated when we returned home later than 9 pm and were subjected to questioning by our families. However, the homestays were the best part of the program. We experienced unrivaled hospitality, exquisite cuisine and unlimited practical Arabic interaction. Another component of our program was volunteering at local Bethlehem organizations. This increased our interaction with the local Palestinian population. The homestays and volunteer placements dispelled the stereotypes and myths of the Palestinians. Unlike their portrayal in Western media, Palestinians desire peace as much as their neighbors in Israel. This was more than apparent through our daily conversations with Palestinians, whether it was our host family, shopkeepers or refugees.

Our stay in Palestine was not just about homestays, volunteer placements and Arabic lessons. A crucial component of the program involved travel around the West Bank and Israel. We visited contested sites such as Jerusalem, Hebron, and the Dead Sea, as well as the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Jericho. The effects of the Israeli occupation could be felt at every turn. Throughout the West Bank, settlements occupy hillsides, extending for miles into the heart of the future Palestinian state. These settlements are only accessible by roads that are specifically
for Israelis and crisscross the West Bank. The separation wall confiscates land, suffocates villages and is an eyesore in the biblical town of Bethlehem. In addition to the wall there were the ubiquitous checkpoints. As Westerners, we received a certain amount of privilege at these checkpoints, but this is not the case for Palestinians, who are stopped daily and humiliated on their way to work and prayer. The situation in Palestine and Israel is untenable and it is in the interest of both people to achieve a peaceful solution.

Our travels in Palestine were filled with frustrating moments, but overall, the experience was full of hope and inspiration. We think it
is important for people to travel to Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel to see the situations for themselves and draw their own conclusions on the region.