Expect the Expected AND the Unexpected: In Israel and the West Bank
Marcia Hook is an International Relations student at Stanford writing an honors thesis about the Samiritans -- a tiny minority religious community in both Israel and the West Bank. She relates some of her adventures -- and some words of advice -- for anyone doing international field work. Continue to read her account:
It was during my first trip to Nablus that I first learned of the existence of the modern Samaritan community. Inspired by a class I had taken at Stanford, I had come to the West Bank to volunteer in a refugee camp and work with children. When I first heard the word “Samaritan, ” mentioned by one of the local volunteers, I vaguely remembered the biblical story of the Good Samaritan who had saved someone important. I was surprised to discover that they still existed in modern times. The Palestinians described the Samaritans as “Palestinian Jews, ” proudly boasting of the peaceful coexistence of the three major religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — within the boundaries of their city. I eventually learned that the Samaritan community numbered no more than 700 individuals, half living in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel and the other half residing near Nablus in the West Bank. I heard rumors of Samaritans being involved in Hamas and the subsequent Israeli Defensive Forces’ retaliations against their community. Could it be true that this tiny community, who consider themselves one of the original tribes of Israel, was involved in the uprising against Israel, despite so many shared traditions between the two religions? If nothing else, it was clear to me that this community was in a unique and politically precarious situation, at the mercy of two nations locked in bitter conflict. I had to know more.
A year later, as I waited in the security section of Ben Gurion International Airport, I wondered if the research project that brought me back to this unsafe corner of the world was destined to fail miserably. Although I had spent several weeks in the West Bank during the previous summer, I knew that this time would be completely different. The political situation had improved since the summer of 2004, especially after the death of President Arafat. Nevertheless, the region could hardly be classified as stable. As a volunteer I was never alone. From the time I arrived in Jerusalem to meet the driver who would take us to Nablus until the day I was returned to Jerusalem three weeks later, local volunteers were always there to guide me and the other internationals, making sure that we were always safe and had whatever we needed. This time I would be on my own. During my trip, I encountered many challenges that I didn’t anticipate because I had never researched in the Middle East. My only hope is that by sharing my story, others can learn from my experience.
Get started early
By the beginning of my junior year I knew that I wanted to do an honors thesis. Nevertheless, since studying Samaritans seemed to be a little out of the realm of International Relations research, I focused on other topics. After completing some cursory research, I realized that not only did my original topic lack focus, it also lacked passion. So I again returned to the Samaritan community, realizing that due to the broad scope of International Relations, I could in fact study this topic which so fascinated me. Unfortunately by the time I realized this, I was already in Chile for winter quarter and was set to continue on to Stanford in Washington. I mentally kicked myself for procrastinating on really determining a research topic before I left campus, knowing that it would be difficult to find and coordinate with an advisor from off-campus in general, let alone another continent. The beginning of junior year seems so early to have determined the topic of an honors thesis. Yet due to the quarter of study abroad that all IR majors are required to complete (and the extra time that many students spend away from campus once they realize how enjoyable it is to be abroad) it is best to at least have met with or secured an advisor before leaving campus. I only wish that I had known sooner just how important it is to start seriously considering topics and talking to professors early on.
Be prepared for the unexpected
Unlike finding an advisor however, it is the often overlooked, last minute preparations that can come back to haunt you at the worst times. Upon arriving in New York for my flight to Tel Aviv, I asked the gate attendant if there was anything else I needed to do before boarding. Sadly for me, he thought that I had already passed through the hours and hours of required questioning before you board any El-Al flight to Israel. When I went to board the plane hours later, the attendants were alarmed to know that I had not passed their inquisition and that my bags had not been specially checked. With less than thirty minutes before the plane was scheduled to depart, I was wisked off to some back room usually reserved for luggage awaiting its ride to the plane. They had me sit while they searched my bags and asked me a few questions. Given the amount of luggage that these employees had to search (they actually search everyone’s luggage by hand again, just in case), I was surprised that they finished so quickly and that this apparent crisis had been averted.
Reaching the gate literally minutes before the departure, they informed me that my laptop had not passed security and that it would have to stay at JFK. After it passed security, it would be shipped to me at my hostel in Israel. Too bad for me that my hostel information — along with everything else I needed for my research — was on the laptop. I tried frantically to boot it up, to pull the information I desperately needed to at least survive when I arrived in Tel Aviv. I cursed my computer’s ridiculously slow boot-up while one of the attendants informed me that it was now or never. Either go now or stay with the laptop. There are really no words that can adequately express how I felt — or at least, not any that can be written here. Receiving nothing more than an absurdly tiny receipt and leaving them with no information other than what I believed to be my cell phone number in Israel, I boarded the plane, leaving behind my laptop, all my personally important files and photos, and basically everything I needed to actually do my research. I think now about how easily this whole problem could have been averted or at least mitigated. If I had only taken the time to print out my hostel information and the surveys I needed for my research, leaving the laptop wouldn’t have been such a big deal. Never expecting that they would confiscate my laptop, I was caught unprepared.
Expect the expected
In a region like the Middle East where the unexpected often becomes reality, it is especially important to know what you can expect and to be prepared. I digress for a moment from the story to share an important point that I have learned, not specifically from this trip or any one instance, but rather from the time I have spent in Middle Eastern countries in general. As an outsider, you are expected to know and respect basic local customs, often more so than locals. Furthermore, locals can easily spot foreigners and pay special attention to the “ajanib. ” For women, wearing a tank top in Beirut is perfectly acceptable. However, wear that same top in Syria or even in more conservative parts of Lebanon and lets just say that, well, the least you will receive will be unhappy glares. This is not to say that this attention necessarily stems from any ill-will, but rather the fact that us humans are by nature curious beings. Discussing some of these issues with someone from your country of interest or even searching online will help ensure that you are safe, comfortable, and respected in a region with diverse social standards like the Middle East.
In addition to preparing for operating within a different social context, logistic concerns such as border crossings must be more carefully thought out when researching in the Middle East, especially since so many countries in the region are enemies. Knowing that the Syrian and Lebanese stamps on my passport always aroused suspicion with the Israeli Border Police, I had been advised that I should print out a letter from my Samaritan contact and also from my honors thesis colloquium professor. Several Middle Eastern nations will not allow anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passports to cross their borders and the Israelis themselves are suspicious of anyone who travels from these countries to Israel. I thought that surely, having these letters would be sufficient proof that I was doing research. Of course, since I was in a hurry to leave, my plans to print these letters dissolved right along with my plans to print out my hostel information.
When I told the security officer that I was doing research on the Samaritans, she looked confused. Thankfully, I knew how to say Samaritans in Hebrew. I told her, in my horrible American accented Hebrew, that I would be doing research on “Ha-Shomronim. ” A large smile appeared on her face, “Aaaah, ha Shomronim! ” After this, our conversation lightened up considerably. I attribute this thawing of relations at least partially to my ridiculous accent when I speak Hebrew, which would convince anyone that I pose no major national security threat. I’ve always believed that learning at least basic greetings in other languages demonstrates respect for other countries and usually ingratiates you with those with whom you are trying to speak, no matter how stupid you may sound. This time however, it became evident that in cases where you are researching abroad, learning key phrases related to your research is more than just a matter of respect, it is a matter of necessity. Many things will be out of your control and emerge unexpectedly during travel. Yet by taking the initiative to briefly introduce yourself to the language, customs, and expectations of the region, you will at least be able to take control of how well you transition into your research environment.
Count on nothing
Regardless of how well you acquaint yourself with the customs and locale, it is important to remember that you are in a foreign country and can count on nothing. Recalling that the hostel was on Ben Yehuda street and that I had chosen a name which made me laugh because it was a doubling of my best friend’s nickname, Mo, I arrived at Momo’s hostel in Tel Aviv without much trouble. I was able to find some of my materials on my gmail account, since web based browsers often save copies of all sent emails. The fact that these documents were in a place that could be accessed from anywhere that I could find internet access saved me, really. The problem was that, although I’m sure they exist in some form, I could not find the Israeli version of a Kinko’s. The one place that I found had an antiquated, dilapidated photocopier and charged about eleven cents per copy. This was horrible since I needed fifty copies of my eight page survey! It began to get even more awkward when other customers began to line up behind me while I attempted to make my four hundred copies. Being in a first-world, westernized country like Israel and unable to find a cheap copy place really highlights a key point, you can’t count on anything when you’re abroad. There are few places in the world that match the United States in terms of comfort and accessible services. Furthermore, when you are in a foreign country, even if these services exist and are readily available, you may just not know where to find them. I counted on there being some sort of easy copy center and when I could not find one, I was left with far fewer copies than I actually needed, limiting the amount of surveys distributed. Being abroad takes us out of our comfort zones and puts us into an environment with which we are usually unfamiliar. Counting on being able to find any of the services or resources you need in a foreign country will place a glass ceiling on the success of your project.
The Key to Research Success in the Middle East: Find a contact
Though so many of the suggested preparations come during the period immediately preceding departure, the one step you can take to truly facilitate your research requires some research in advance, but will more than pay off when you arrive “in country. ”
So far, it seemed like I had done everything wrong. Thankfully my luck was about to change. When I first began researching the Samaritan community, I frequently came across the name Bejamin Tsedaka. He was very active in promoting the issues of the Samaritan community abroad and was thanked by almost every researcher I found that had written on the Samaritans. With my mom’s encouragement, I contacted Mr. Tsedaka via email and explained my research interests in his community. A few days before I came, he informed me that he would be attending a wedding on Mt. Gerizim, near Nablus, when I arrived. He invited me to the wedding, explaining that it would be much easier to speak with people at the wedding since the whole community would be gathered for the event. Benny, as he preferred to be called, was invaluable to my research. He escorted me around the community, both in Israel and the West Bank, explaining history and answering any of my questions that came to mind. His eagerness to assist was clear from our original email correspondence, but I never realized that having someone from within the community, who was also fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic (the Samaritans in Israel speak Hebrew, the Samaritans in the West Bank, mainly Arabic), would be such a help. It would not be excessive to say that I owe much of the success of my research to his assistance. Generally speaking, in every community in the Middle East, this type of kind person exists. While they may not always help to the great extent that Benny did, if you are able to find someone who knows the community and loves to share their history and culture with others (local politicians and community leaders especially), completing research will be substantially easier.
Looking back and looking forward
Looking back on my research, I see so many ways in which I could have better prepared. At the end of the day, what affected me most were the last minute preparations which I neglected because as always, when we are rushing to pack, a trivial thing like printing out letters is last on our minds. It seems like such a waste of time to sit down and print a physical copy of everything when it seems to be guaranteed that you’ll have your laptop with you to show security officials these letters, to consult for your hostel information. The problem is that you may not have your laptop with you. Expecting the unexpected and counting on nothing are crucial to surviving research in the Middle East. However, if you really want to succeed in the close-knit communities of the Middle East, the key is to find someone who really knows the community to help you. When I first arrived to Tel Aviv for my research, I worried that I wouldn’t be able complete my research successfully on my own. To an extent, I was right. Without the help of a local who understood the community, my research would have been much more difficult. Ultimately however, everyone will face their own unique challenges during research. Although some of the advice offered here was given more weight than others, I truly believe that if you allow each of these recommendations to inform your preparations for research in the Middle East, you will feel and be much safer, comfortable, and successful during your time in the region.