Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pharyngal Voiced Fricatives and Love

Two days ago I went to a conference entitled Feminism: From Theory to Practice among the Bedouin women. It was presented in Hebrew and Arabic and attended by roughly 30 Bedouin women. In order to get something useful done with my time I alternated between watching the body language of the participants when each of the five panelists presented, and reading the book "The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read and Write it".

At one point in the book, the authors are describing one of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, which has no equivalent in English, and they write "The only real way to learn it is to listen to Arabs and practice incessantly," then they go on to say, "In scientific phonological terms, this letter is a pharyngal voiced fricative."

Huh?! A what?

I expect to be confused by listening to or reading Arabic, but that last sentence is in English and I still have no idea what it means.

Contrast that experience with this one. Yesterday I attended a much smaller conference with three of my colleagues, all Arab women. We were meeting in order to discuss options for a website I'm helping to create for the organization. At the beginning of the meeting they made apologies and explained that they'd be speaking in Arabic. Understandable. It's more efficient since their English, while infinitely better than my Arabic, is still cumbersome.

After being here for three weeks, I've realized that this is probably the way it's going to be while I'm here - I'm just not going to understand most of what is spoken.

Anyway, the meeting continues. Amny pulls up the site she and I worked on together and then she pulls up a rough draft I created using another program.  The women discuss the pros and cons of each for a while, and then there is a shift in the conversation. Even though everything is still being said in Arabic, it's clear to me that one of the three women has either recently fallen in love or is about to get married. They talk about this for a minute and then move back to pointing at the screen and discussing the websites.

During our debrief later that day Amny confirmed that the other woman was having a formal engagement party this weekend and will be getting married soon.

After the confusion of the day before, which exemplifies the daily confusion I've resigned myself to, it was uplifting to be reminded that sometimes I'll still be able understand and connect with the women I'll be working with regardless of language and cultural barriers.

Addendums, p.s.'s, and additional thoughts:
1. That one sentence aside, the book I mentioned is actually astonishingly good at explaining the Arabic alphabet.
2. Here is the link to the rough draft website I'm creating for one of the organizations. I'm testing out the pros and cons of using Blogger. Any comments, thoughts, feedback, suggestions, or criticisms are welcomed and appreciated. Daughters of the Desert.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Some Small Insight

After my previous post, it's appropriate to begin this one by saying - I've been doing a lot of reading.  In order to get to know the region in general and the organizations I'm working with in more detail I've just finished reading "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman, and I've just finished actively browsing approximately 90 websites for Jewish foundations and philanthropic organizations.

My first deliverable involved determining which of those foundations and organizations might be willing to support the organization Ma'an - The Forum of Arab Women's Organizations in the Negev. For each organization that looked like a match, I prepared an LOI, Letter of Inquiry, which asked the organization if it would like to become a partner or supporter of Ma'an and its programs.  I created one document organizing all of the contact information and left some room for tracking the status of the relationships as they develop.  In the non-profit world this is known as "resource development".  In my world this is known as "not nearly as fun as it looks and it doesn't look that fun".  This particular aspect of resource development involves more researching and organizing than I enjoy, but I'm glad it freed up Merav, my colleague in Ma'an, to work on the relationship-building aspect of resource development.  And it feels good to have completed something tangible that will hopefully lead to good things for the Bedouin women's organizations.
It also feels good to be finished with "From Beirut to Jerusalem".  It weighs in at just over 500 pages and is filled with fascinating insights and perspectives on this part of the world.  I recommend it.  I enjoyed it even more than I normally would have because I was reading it while I'm in Israel.  The references made to cities, regional newspapers, or local cuisine really came alive because I could walk out my door and experience them.  The information in the book helped me understand the tension in this region on an intellectual level.

It took less than one chapter of another book for me to understand the tension on a gut level. 

Without going into too much detail, I'll share some pertinent pieces of my background.  I was raised in Protestant churches, most frequently Southern Baptist churches.  I did my fair share of Bible reading while growing up. And then I took a looooong break from it.  For a variety of reasons, I decided it was important to bring a Bible to Israel.

Even when I was actively reading the Bible on a daily basis I didn't enjoy most of the Old Testament, but Israel seemed an appropriate place to try reading parts of it again.  At random the other day, I opened it and read the following portion from the book of Nehemiah:

"As for the villages with their fields, some of the people of Judah lived in Kirath Arba and its surrounding settlements, in Dibon and its settlements, in Jekabzeel and its villages, in Jeshua, in Moladah, in Beth Pelet, in Hazar Shual, in Beersheba and its settlements..."

Be'er Sheva, the place I'm living now, is the Beersheba mentioned in that passage.

"From Beirut to Jerusalem" coming alive to some degree because I'm reading it in Israel is one thing, having the Bible come alive to some degree, any degree, is something else completely.  I don't feel that it's appropriate to discuss my faith on this blog, but I'll at least say - I'm not Jewish.  For me, a non-Jew, to have a noticeably strong reaction to reading a, let's face it, not-all-that-exciting passage gives me some small insight into the passions surrounding this piece of geography.  In addition to not being Jewish, I'm also not Palestinian, but it's not hard to empathize and begin to understand that both groups feel similarly strong ties to this land.