Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Haifa and Ibillin

The train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv winds through beautiful canyons slowly dropping to sea level and rich agricultural lands along the coast. Israeli trains are more on the order of the luxurious European than American variety. I changed trains in Tel Aviv and managed to find a seat on a very packed train going north to Haifa. I am more accustomed now to seeing Israeli soldiers everywhere, their weapon slung over their back or along their side. It’s a little harder getting used to sitting next to one on the train with his or her weapon lodged between us.

Haifa is a stunning city. I treated myself to a hotel on Mt. Carmel overlooking the city and the Mediterranean. It was pouring when I arrived and cleared shortly thereafter to reveal a sparkling city and port. The Baha’i World Center and gardens are a 15 minute walk along the Panorama; a little farther to the Carmel Monastery. Magnificent.

I had called Mar Elias, the school built by Elias Chacour in Ibillin several times during the week to arrange my visit. A very kind woman advised me to catch a bus for Ibillin at the Lev Hamefraps terminal at the northern end of Haifa. I found my way there well enough, but discovered buses for Ibillin ran only in the evening. A little bargaining with a taxi driver got us launched for only 100 shekels. My driver, however, failed to tell me he didn’t have a clue how to get to Ibillin. With many stops to ask directions, we arrived in a very much larger village than I anticipated. Mar Elias sits atop a steep hill which, on the clear day I visited, afforded a magnificent view of the Mediterranean.

The school arranged for a wonderful young American woman, Kathryn Pharr, in her first year of teaching, to give me a tour. The physical plant is quite impressive with well-equipped classrooms, science and communication labs and building continuing at several locations. The school serves over 2,000 students, about 60% Muslim, 40% Christian. There are Jewish, Christian and Muslim faculty. Tuition runs $200 a year, a fee some families still cannot afford. Gifts from abroad and from the faculty make up the difference. Because of finances, classes are large, around 40, but standards are very high and 80% of their students go on study at universities. As we walked through the campus during a break in classes, Kathryn introduced me to two of her students, Aseel and Hend, pretty Muslim girls and best friends. They said what they liked so much about Mar Elias was the open atmosphere and the permission they feel to talk about whatever they want. Nothing is out of bounds. In a conversation with the vice-principal, Elias Abu Ghanima, I learned that because Arab Israeli young people are not required to serve in the military (and few want to), they must wait three years after high school to apply to university. That supposedly keeps things “even”. Having fewer children and somewhat higher incomes, Arab Israeli Christians often don’t wait the three years and send their children to college in the US, Europe or other Arab countries. Experiencing life in a freer society, they frequently emigrate from Israel, reducing the Christian population in the Holy Land even further.

Mar Elias’ vice-principal, Elias Abu Ghanima, has been at the school “forever”. He was a student in Chacour’s first ninth grade class, graduated high school, went to Hebrew University and then returned to Ibillin to teach. Abuna Chacour is his godfather. He is a man with enormous energy and passion. As our conversation moved from education to politics, he reflected that unique combination of fatigue, frustration and hope that characterizes so many Palestinians. Regarding the difficulty of finding strong national leadership, he told me of the Arab Israeli elected to the Knesset who is now in exile in Jordan. After publicly calling for an “Israel for all its people” (Jew and Arab alike) he was charged with some sort of traitorous communications. If he returns to Israel, he will be imprisoned. Some of the tough determination I’ve heard from other Palestinians was reflected in his blunt comment, “We will never be the Jew for the Jews”. He left our conversation with the reminder that I (Cotton) am a Christian because his ancestors were followers of this man, Jesus. I’ll not forget.

Before gratefully catching a ride back to Haifa with the school’s head of maintenance and his family, I came upon teen age students practicing an exuberant form of Arab dancing. They were perfectly wonderful, reflecting all the energy and silliness of teenagers everywhere. I even learned a few steps.

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