My name is Cynthia, and I am an undergraduate student at the University of Mississippi studying International Relations. I am from the United States, and I am participating in the Teach English, Speak Arabic program at the Excellence Center.
Before I came to Hebron this summer, I was under the impression that I was going to be living in a conflict zone, that I’d have IDF soldiers walking up and down the street, and that fear and political tension would be oppressively present in every part of my daily life. Professors who have traveled to the West Bank told me that I’d want to have someone to whom I could vent to about the situation. I read many, many news articles online that pointed to instability in the Palestinian Territories, and that living there meant inevitably being involved in protests and politics.
However, the understanding of the situation in Palestine among not only common people, but also among those who study the Middle East, is gravely skewed. I had prepared myself for a summer of politics, when I really did not need to. I have spent the past two months with the Excellence Center, teaching English in both the city of Hebron and the village of Kharas. It wasn’t a political experience. It wasn’t unsafe, and it wasn’t nearly what I thought it would be. I lived in a beautiful house, had plenty of hot water for my showers, and the electricity never was cut off. I took public transportation by myself, and passed checkpoints easily whenever I travelled to the Hebron settlement or Jerusalem. While I did have to adjust to the culture with both my host family and the classroom, volunteering with the Excellence Center has given nothing but wonderful insight and impressions of Hebron and the West Bank.
Every day this summer, I would take the bus in the morning from the village where I lived to the center. Ialways would breakfast with the entire Excellence Center staff, which was a great time for me to talk to my friends before we went our own ways for the day. During breakfast, all the Excellence Center volunteers were constantly engaged in interesting political discussions as we talked about Brexit, the Trump election, South African politics, or Hawaii’s complicated relationship to the United States. The people here at the Excellence Center come from such diverse backgrounds, so there’s always a multitude of conversation topics. This was one of my most favorite aspects of working here at the center: being constantly surrounded by people who had so many different perspectives and opinions that no one ever had the same ideas about any subject. Sometimes we would talk about weddings, and the former professional chef from New York City would talk about how she catered an extremely fancy wedding last year. Or we could be talking about Trump, and the conversation would just move to talking about the alt-right movements in Europe. We would always share our languages with each other too, picking up words in Swedish, Danish, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Italian, and Spanish, as we all taught English and learned Arabic.
The environment here at the Excellence Center is nothing but positive and supportive, even on the worst of days. There’s always someone to talk to, someone to rant to, someone to celebrate with, and someone to study with. Everyone is excited to experience new things, tease out new bits of Palestinian culture that we don’t understand, and to support each other for the time that we’re here. Adjusting to life in a conservative, religious city can be hard, but the people and internationals at the Excellence Center make it much easier.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned from my time here in Palestine is that you really need to go to its cities, meet its people, spend time on its streets and in its public transportation system, and eat in its restaurants and coffee shops if you really want to know what life is like there. My life here in Hebron doesn’t look like your Al-Jazeera documentary or your exposé from the New York Times. No amount of academic research or talking to my professors could have given me the same knowledge that living in Hebron did. I experienced Palestinian culture and what it means to live under occupation. I learned a lot about Palestinian classroom culture, and the positive and negative aspects of having foreigners teach English classes to Palestinian students. I learned how to cook Mensif and Makloubeh, and about how many spoon-fulls of sugar to put in a pot of Arabic tea. Teaching at the Excellence Center has been an invaluable experience that has changed the way in which I look at life and education in the West Bank. I will not leave Palestine with extensive experiences in protests or the IDF, but I know a lot more about Palestinian daily life, which is almost more valuable.
Teaching English and learning Arabic at the Excellence Center was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The experiences I have had and the people that I have met have changed my life for the better, and my knowledge in the Palestinian Question has increased in ways that I had not thought possible before.