International Studies Holds Colloquia on the Middle East Today

During two Tuesday-afternoon sessions in February, students and faculty gathered in Hopkins 002 for panels and a discussion entitled “The Middle East Today.”

Molly Goldberg ’14, Tyler Holden ’13, Hill Hamrick ’13 , and Myya McGregory ’14 presented about their recent trips to the region during the first session. Goldberg and Holden visited Israel as a part of Birthright, a program that brings college-age Jewish students to Israel in an attempt “to strengthen participants’ Jewish identity; to build an understanding, friendship and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide,” says Birthright’s website. Deciding to remain a few days after the ten-day Birthright trip ended, the two women began independent research projects there. Goldberg stayed with an Ethiopian refugee who had come to Israel in 1991, when Israel conducted an air raid on Ethiopia and brought more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel; these refugees received money and education in an absorption center before they began their new life in Israel. At the same time, Holden was studying the Lone Soldier system, a program which brings young people who were not born in Israel back to the country to fight in the IDF.

Hamrick, a junior History and Arabic Studies major, spent four weeks in Jordan during Winter Study. Hamrick was particularly interested in the Jordanians’ respect for their Western-educated king, King Abdullah II, who has recently attempted to institute electoral and judicial reforms in the country. Hamrick also noted that, despite a marked absence of complaint, there was a large disparity between the rich in the poor, with the poorest still using donkeys for transport in the modern streets of Amman. In addition, Hamrick met with members of the Jordanian Parliament to discuss hot-button issues such as its peace treaty with Israel and its relationship with an increasingly chaotic Syria.

McGregory, a sophomore Economics and Chemistry major, visited Egypt during Winter Study, staying with a family she had met indirectly through her church at home. Most interesting, said McGregory, was the existence of two distinct identities for Egypt: Egypt as a northern African country, dealing with problems such as a large Sudanese refugee community, and Egypt as a part of the explosive Middle East. While in Egypt, McGregory worked at a Sudanese refugee camp; her Egyptian host family, however, did not understand why she wanted to help these refugees, stating that, although Egypt had recognized South Sudan, it was in no position to help the refugees. “We just don’t respect refugees,” McGregory’s family had said. “They should stay and fight for their country just like we did.”

On Tuesday, February 21, Sophia Chen ’14, Elizabeth Jimenez ’12, Laura Villafranco ’13, Frank Pagliaro ’14, Diqian Wang ’12, and Robin Gimm ’14, who had each traveled to the Middle East through Williams-sponsored trips, presented about their experiences in the region. Jiminez, a  Political Science major, and Chen, a Political Science and Arabic Studies major, visited Morocco, a country which they described as unique in its recent bloodless governmental reforms, despite its proximity to the unstable Algeria. The two women also noted the country’s incredible multiculturalism: many Moroccans, after education, know not only Arabic, the country’s official language, but also Derja, a language which many families speak at home, French, and sometimes English. They did witness a peaceful protest in the area, with many of the young protesters upset at the corruption of the educational system and the unavailability of jobs in the region.

Wang, a senior Math and Japanese major, and Gimm, a sophomore, studied art in Egypt and especially the relationship between contemporary art and the protests in the area. Their work in Egypt culminated in a mural project in cooperation with a young Egyptian graffiti artist. In its final form, the painting connected a variety of current issues, both American and Egyptian: “99%” was branded next to a political slogan in Arabic decrying Mubarak and his regime.

Finally, Frank Pagliaro, a sophomore, and Laura Villafranco, a junior History major, discussed their own trip to Israel. The two students addressed in particular the spiritual experiences that they underwent at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and at the Western Wall. On their first visit, both students had felt overwhelmed by the noise and the number of tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and cited their frustration with the tourists’ lack of respect for the sacred site. Both were relieved, however, when they visited the Western Wall, leaving notes at the wall in accordance with Jewish tradition; the two students felt an intense connection with the people at the wall, many of whom were weeping and praying. This emotional spiritual experience, they said, forced them to ask themselves, “What is a holy site? What does it mean to have a holy experience?”

The International Studies Colloquia will continue this Tuesday with a discussion of asylum seeking in modern France.