My Friend, Jihad

My friend, Jihad

Rotary International had been sponsoring a program, “Computers for the World” (C4W), whereby computer students would refurbish PCs for use in developing countries. They would manage the collection process and the course centered on learning by doing, connected up to the social good of helping to close the digital divide. A clear win-win. They conducted fundraisers for their travel and shipping so that people and machines would arrive at the same time.

The students would install the computers, teach the skills of computer use and maintenance, and experience the world.
At one point, between strong coffee and offers of mutton I could not refuse, our conversation returned to what we should do with the computers and the students.

He was worried about two issues: The first had to do with increasing youth restlessness after a group of teens had provoked Israeli police. He told me about a film, making the rounds, shot from a tent, of Israeli soldiers bulldozing an unrecognized village because it was fouling the ecosystem of the fields. The editors of the film made it clear that the Israelis would not keep up their end of the bargain to build anew. He wanted to get started right away so that we could help de-escalate the tension.

His second concern had to do with a vanishing awareness of identity and history. Increasing access to media exacerbated the awareness of the difference between haves and have nots. The film helped to make the issue real…and local.

There was, indeed, a McDonalds not far away, but the community considered it an insult, expensive, and tasteless. Young people were attracted to it, but couldn’t afford it. He was witnessing a rapidly encroaching culture clash and it was not looking pretty.

I told him that I had just read an article by a professor of art and education at Stanford, Eliot Eisner, who defined culture using both anthropological and biological metaphors. Culture was simultaneously “a way of life” (traditionally, who we are, what we do, how we have learned to act, the characteristics of a people) and a “medium for growing things” (like a petri dish, a fertile environment for cultivation). He wanted our project to be both, but was worried about the extremes.

If culture is merely a “way of life,” then what about the future? Cultural preservationists (Fred, I’ll do some research on this) may have good intentions, especially when x# of languages and customs are made extinct every year (Fred, I’ll do some research on this, too). At the same time, those same good intentions tend to marginalize the very people they want to protect. They become exotic or fringe, National Geographic specials.

International Studies programs make claims that globalization has infringed upon basic rights (in many cases, quite true), running roughshod over a people’s traditions. Anti-globalization groups were arrogant enough to claim that poor communities did not need computers, but food and schools, and that the information technology explosion was just another excuse for selling PCs and Microsoft products.

To follow this line of thinking, participate in a global environment would be attenuated, at best. He was well aware of the opposite problem. A McDonalds on every corner. Villages with central meeting places replaced overnight with apartment buildings and higher bills. A homogenization, a lack of history, and the anesthesia that replaces knowledge and wisdom with facts and figures, this coming from a mathematician with a Ph.D. He stayed in the village, he said, instead of moving to Be’er Shiva precisely because paint and carpet can appear overnight, because this is where he was raised, because community matters, because his father entrusted him with the idea that education, like culture, is about both a way of life and a medium for growing things.

I remembered one of the lectures I had slipped in to hear, in which a distinction was made between “traditional” and “tradition.” According to Alfred North Whitehead, “traditional is the dead ideas of the living. Tradition is the living ideas of the dead.” This project would live.

We drilled down for what all this lofty talk might mean for Lakiya. “I got it,” Jihad said. “We’ll gather the kids together and explain that they have a special project and that they will get credit for it. We’ll teach them how to conduct interviews, take pictures, and scan them into the computer. We’ll gather up some tape records, too. After school, they’ll walk the village and interview elders about their past. That way we can record our traditions. Then they’ll come back to the Community Teaching and Learning Center. We’ll put it all together and maybe even make CDs to sell. This way we’ll be recording our culture using skills they’ll need for the future. The Community Teaching and Learning Center will be the bridge between “a way of life” and a “medium for growing things.”

That afternoon, we had the design in place for a Community Teaching and Learning Center, as well as one of our first programs. What shall we call this? I asked. We can name it later, but let’s just start person by person and see how it goes, one face at a time. We looked at each other and smiled. That would be the title.

“One Face at a Time” was born in a Bedouin tent at a wedding. Later that night, I lay in bed replaying the loop of events that had transpired over the course of just one week. The air was punctuated by the sounds of guns fired in the air to celebrate the wedding. I didn’t mind. Soon afterwards, the program began. Jihad’s graduate students taught language in the afternoons and the program began. “One Face at a Time” was duplicated for students in Seattle and in Afghanistan and served as a significant resource for a program developed by a partner non-profit organization in the United States, “Bridges to Understanding.”

Though Teachers Without Borders was designed to go deep with teacher professional development, we felt we had made our contribution to an organization that would do this kind of thing exclusively. “Bridges” used digital storytelling to connect classrooms. Conceived and led by an extraordinary photographer, Phil Borges, “Bridges” grew globally.

In 2011, however, amidst the financial crisis, “Bridges” closed its doors. Many far more service-delivery non profits had closed as well. Food banks or medical clinics, on a subsistence diet as it is, were overwhelmed by declining government services, but money wasn’t coming in. For a non-profit such as Bridges, far less immediate, the future was uncertain, at best. One would expect that Teachers Without Borders, focusing on professional development for teachers in foreign countries, would be the first to go. But we survived.

Unaware of my connection with Jihad, “One Face at a Time,” or our support for Bridges when it began, we received a call asking us if we might be willing to put a proposal together. A successful proposal would result in adoption of all their assets – the photographs, the stories, and the curriculum. Teachers Without Borders was chosen.

It was as if the sheer endurance contest of keeping a non-profit alive was an accomplishment in and of itself. And now we were being rewarded for having openly shared ideas that had fueled us when we began.

I am often asked for advice about starting a non-profit. After I get past my standard self-deprecating comments, I realize that experience matters, and—more often than not—I say:

Share everything. International development is not a race. Don’t hoard ideas, for they wither like forgotten fruit and no one gets fed.

Find great leaders and spend your time removing barriers so that they can flourish. Paint it above the archway of your door or on your forehead if you have to.

Over the years, Jihad continued to operate the Community Teaching and Learning Center in Lakiya. The computers were updated. Jihad received tenure at Ben Gurion University and, to this day, leads efforts to ensure that the citizens of Lakiya are learning about who they are and what they can be. He is honoring his father’s words. Jihad has returned to the United States numerous times. On his rare visits to Seattle, I have done our best to return the favor of such extraordinary Arab hospitality.

A few years ago, Jihad told me that a woman’s weaving group moved into the off-line room and were selling their wares. Though this was reason enough for joy, he then added. “Do you remember my mother?” I recalled seeing her in the corner of the room, my first night, and working in the kitchen or yard thereafter. “She decided she wanted to learn how to read. With the other women in the weaving group, they found an instructor. Get this, Fred: she’s in third grade!” We reminisced about that first experience to Lakiya, the bus, my suitcases, and the hungry camel. I reminded him of his note to me on September 11th 2001. He had seen the news reports and images of the attack, of Arab communities devastated by the news, and those celebrating the triumph over America.

“We are bereft,” he had written. “I also want to tell you this, Fred. At dark times like this, we must light a candle.”

I told Jihad that I had also lit a candle that night for those lost in the United States and for my the peace and safety of my beloved friends in Lakiya.

He recalled our last day of my first trip to Lakiya. We had traveled to see a mosque in disrepair and threatened with extinction, pitted and broken, scrawled with graffiti. He said he noticed that I was upset, wiping away tears, and eerily stone quiet the entire ride back. “When I first met you,” he said, “you were 95 percent my friend. After that visit to the mosque, you became 100 percent my friend.”

“Is that all it takes?” I asked.

“That’s all it takes,” he answered.

Advice #3: Make and build true friendships—deep ones, full of good questions and family, shared sorrow and challenge. If you do that, however long it takes, you grow a history together. And every morning, when you unfold a newspaper or access it online, a report from many regions of the world will be as familiar to you as your backyard, because the people will feel like family.

I decided to hitch my wagon to this star. Teachers Without Borders would build a partnership with Rotary and the high school, attract funding, and build credibility by supporting the project and the teaching component.

I wormed my way into a meeting held at Garfield High School in Seattle. A table was cleared amongst the debris of open computer chassis, motherboards, cords, cabinets, pallets, workbenches, and tools. After introductions, the teacher described projects to date in Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Mozambique, along with a progress report on upcoming trips to Ethiopia and Uganda. The Rotarian in attendance pledged support.

It was time for C4W determine the next project. And that’s when Kay Bullitt, born in 1925, a Radcliffe grad, mother of six, and a tireless advocate for human rights and school desegregation, gave compelling reasons to support a new opportunity. She described a village named Lakiya, comprised of Bedouins living in the Israeli portion of the Negev Desert, close to the bustling, modern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, once conquered by King David, the source of Jacob’s stairway to heaven, and the city with the highest concentration of chess champions in the world.

Lakiya had consistent electricity, Kay explained. Shipping would be facilitated by good roads. It would help to bridge not only the digital divide, but the Israeli-Arab divide. Contrary to popular belief, she urged, the community is not isolated or nomadic or threatening, but accessible, organized and willing.

Best of all, Kay argued, the local leader was responsible, brilliant, motivated. She had met him and trusted him implicitly.

His name was Jihad. Jihad Al-Sana, a Bedouin professor of computer science at Ben Gurion University, a Fulbright Scholar with a PhD in Computer Science from SUNY, Stony Brook. Raised with his 8 siblings, Jihad’s mother was, at the time, illiterate. His father, a truck driver without formal education, longed for his children to receive a quality education, but did not live long enough to see it happen. Jihad had vowed to keep his father’s dream alive.

Highly respected in his field of 3D graphics, mathematical modeling, and augmented reality, Jihad was (and is) frequently cited. Fluent in Hebrew, English, and Arabic (and a frequent visitor to the United States), Kay and Jihad had discussed the idea of establishing a place where young people could gain basic computer skills and be occupied after school. His village association would provide the space. His own students would support upkeep on the computers.

He just needed the machines themselves and vowed to establish a program by which the Seattle students would meet Bedouin students. The whole thing sounded ideal.

It was rejected. Too political. The Middle East too dangerous for the kids. Too uncertain. How can we justify this to the parents? His name is Jihad?

I slipped Kay a note to reassure her and then raised my hand. She slipped me her response: “Wonderful!” I then introduced myself again. “I’ll do it,” I said, with no idea where and how to start, and no track record. “I can’t do the travel part, but I’ll set up the Community Teaching and Learning Center with Jihad.” Kay pressed the note with Jihad’s email into my hand.

For weeks, Jihad and I exchanged notes, and it seemed clear that this would be the first project. I announced to my wife: “Sometime soon, I am going to Israel – the Negev desert, to start my first project with a guy named Jihad. I met him on the internet. Seems like a great guy.”

Her face read fear, compassion, and concern—the kind of look one makes just before making that call to place someone in a 36-hour psychiatric hold.

This may be a step toward the funny farm, and I did imagine the implausibility of a canvas tent in a particularly brutal hamsim, a dust storm roaring in from the Sinai, a magic carpet of haze, a Walker Evans Depression era photograph.

But I have already gotten pretty adept at dismissing panic and went to work. I convinced the University of Washington computer department to recycle their older PCs. I went from building to building, looking for computers. C4W gave me a few. Microsoft added more of their own. Kate gave me a pep talk on how to ask a particular donor for flight money. An executive from DHL offered to handle the shipping.

In May 2001, the computers had not yet arrived, but I landed in Tel Aviv and took a bus to Lakiya. A petite, doe-eyed Israeli woman in her late teens took the aisle seat next to me and rested her Uzi across my lap, checking her eyeliner from time to time by leaning over to catch a reflection from the window.

On the outskirts of the village, the bus lurched to a stop. There was nothing much around, though I thought I had seen a McDonalds out of the corner of my eye, not 15 minutes prior. An optical illusion, I thought. This is, after all, the desert.

In cartoon style, the bus sped away and I stood with my suitcases, blinking from the dust, fully expecting Jihad to materialize. I turned to see a fairly modern building behind me and then turned suddenly at the sound of a camel, foraging through a dumpster. Funny, I thought, I had been doing that very thing not that long ago. The camel spat. I was impressed by the arc of spittle, but pretended not to notice.

I put my suitcases down and sat on them to contemplate my next moves and my fate. The oppressive heat, however, drove me to ask some questions. My Hebrew was elementary, at best, and my Arabic non-existent. I had Jihad’s address, but he had told me to wait. The building supervisor allowed me to use his phone, but I could not reach Jihad. I suppressed my panic and smiled.

I considered asking: “Do you know Jihad?” then caught myself before realizing the inherent absurdity of such a question. I pointed to his name in Hebrew and Arabic. At first, no signs of recognition. Dutiful, I sat on a bench in the waiting room unaware, at first, that the building was a teaching center, newly built, complete with a small museum, a lecture hall, and a library. Propitious, indeed. But still no Jihad.

I returned to the front desk and explained to a new person in charge that I was a teacher and Jihad’s friend, that I know he was a professor at Ben Gurion University, and did they happen to know how to reach him?

Jihad suddenly appeared, breathless and apologetic, took my bags, and ushered me into his car. His family was waiting for us. I removed my shoes and we washed our hands. In a room furnished by pillows and a flowered tablecloth spread before us on rugs woven by local women. We ate sumptuously. From the corner of the room, his mother smiled. I knew enough not to attempt to shake her hand.

The following morning, Jihad showed me the site of what we agreed to call a Community Teaching and Learning Center. The computers would show up soon, he said. I peppered him with questions about the electricity, maintenance, security, program, paint, carpet, supervision, and additional costs. It’s covered, he said. The electricity is, indeed, stable. This is a recognized village, he explained, so it has basic infrastructure. Close by, he explained, are several unrecognized villages with no services. But many Bedouin communities do not.

Don’t worry about the Center, he said. If we need paint or carpet, we’ll ask. If we need supervision, we’ll talk with the teachers. The program will follow. In the meantime, the Community Teaching and Learning Center would have two rooms–one with computers, the other with pillows. In the meantime, he urged me, let’s just talk.

It was an open door to friendship, and I walked right in. We talked about Arab-Israeli relations, Islam and Judaism, globalization and indigenous wisdom, science and faith, locally sustainable development and charity, fatherhood and extended family.

Villagers visited Jihad and, over tea, the conversation expanded. An Arab and Israeli student had, apparently, arrived at Jihad’s office in order to respond to a flyer posted about giving workshops on computers to youth after school. On campus, over the course of a week, the buzz of collaboration gained momentum, and the villagers wanted to know more.

I had no answers, I explained.

That, apparently, was enough. Jihad’s students committed to offering workshops. Carpet and paint appeared suddenly. A schedule was created, the computers secured. I was surprised at the ease of it all. Jihad looked puzzled. “Isn’t this what communities do?”

I was invited to join him at a relative’s wedding. I bought my share of a sheep as part of the wedding gift. We stood up when elders entered and I followed his lead and rehearsed what I was to say in Arabic: “تهانينا في يوم الزفاف”: “Congratulations on the wedding day.” I was certain I was uttering something blasphemous, but kept it up. Every quizzical look was followed by a smile.

Jihad’s nephew was snapping pictures with my camera and, each time, looked over for approval. With ever reassuring glance, he came closer until he sat almost on top of me. I put my arm around him while Jihad snapped a picture.

To this day, my wife tells me that this photograph is, other than those of our own wedding and holding my children, one of the happiest she has ever seen. Was I becoming one of those white folks in the middle of the photograph? Am I hearing sirens?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *