Travel, War & Conflict

Journey to Another Planet

I’ve always thought the Middle East, a faraway region that I’ve never visited but that’s always fascinated me, to be something of a different planet. When we shipped troops to Iraq or get headlines, we might as well be talking about Mars. But the Middle East was about to get a lot more real when I signed up for a trip to Israel (and tacked on Jordan) this winter.

To be sure, Israel is just another country (I’ve already made this post contentious) and it’s not too different. But as my flight came into Tel Aviv, it already looked exotic:

On approach to #TelAviv #itrekisrael

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I’m speaking specifically of the glow under the cloud to the right, which reminded me of this verse from the Bible:

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. (Exodus 13:21)

Then there was a red sun setting over Gaza, which reminded me of Tatooine:

But it doesn’t stop at aesthetics; you can also do otherwordly things like float in water:

Where's that bucket list? #DeadSea #itrekisrael

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But Israel is more than this–it’s the people, and of course political issues. Without simplifying this to a video game, in sci-fi games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, when you travel to planets, you frequently have to interact with local populations, going on quests and making choices to solve local dramas, such as a blood feud between two alien groups. No doubt the game developers took inspiration from real world conflicts–which could easily include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When we arrived in Tel Aviv, there was a lot of news regarding the conflict, with the Obama administration expressing doubts about the two-state solution. I think my class had a very generic outline of the conflict in our heads, and some basic opinions about it. The last week of talks, Q&As, info dumps, and actually being confronted with solving the issue made all that a lot more complicated.

How to deal with settlements, poverty, terrorism, extremist politics in a country (or proposed pair of countries) we just got to know in earnest? We went from the first day still trying to grasp the subtleties of Zionism, Ultra-Orthodox, “right-wing” Israeli politics, etc., to the middle of the week, nearly yelling at each other on the bus about religion and the state, Gaza, Hamas, the nature of a “democracy.” We’ve certainly left with more questions than answers.

***

Sunset at #WadiRum

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Crossing over into Jordan only intensified the feeling of being on an alien planet. Even though Jordan has a climate similar to California and a chaos reminiscent of India, it has continued to feel unusually foreign to me, even after visiting so many new countries this summer. It’s no accident that The Martian was filmed in the Wadi Rum desert. (“I didn’t know he was famous,” said our Bedouin host about seeing Matt Damon, “so I didn’t try to get his picture.”)

Though I wasn’t there for long, it doesn’t take a lifetime in Jordan to see that it has its own host of problems and complexities. I was struck by the simplistic, appealing lifestyle of the Bedouins (and their delicious, diabetes-inducing tea) as well as the generally laid-back attitude of Jordanians. But Jordan is beset by limits on freedom of speech, an enormous refugee burden (one family on our plane out was being relocated by the IOM), occasional terrorist attacks, and horrible driving conditions (i.e. how am I alive?). And yet, as a Bedouin put it, “There’s no freedom in Saudi Arabia–I’d rather be here, where there is freedom.”

That Bedouin had a lot to say, and out of all the speakers we listened to on this trip, I found him the most agreeable. On ISIS:

If I’m a good Muslim, why do I need to go kill people? I should show them what a good Muslim looks like and people can decide whether to be Muslim.

On living in the rural area vs. the city:

In the city, you say hi to someone and he ask what you want. Here in the desert, you say hi and he say hi back, and hospitality is most important. If I find a guy lost in the desert, I give him my own blood–I have to help him.

On rich vs. poor:

I don’t want to be a businessman. If I become rich, I might forget the poor people. If I become rich and give money to the poor people, the fine. But I might forget the poor people.

In the midst of the tribalism into which the Middle East (and perhaps the rest of the world) has devolved, and trying to figure out the answers, it was refreshing to hear this philosophy around a tent fire. Even as far as the seemingly exotic Middle East, even around the complex situation that is Israel/Palestine, even on a distant planet, some basic principles ought to apply.

Oftentimes in these video games, I’d have the opportunity to solve a centuries-long conflict and leave the planet with a clear conscience–which could feel a bit cheap. At least to some extent, we as foreigners can’t be saviors, especially if it turns out the people we’re “saving” have at least as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

We are, as I said in the previous post, all on one Earth, but we should be humble and not assume our answers apply everywhere.

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