Immersive Arab program invites Israelis to blend in with life in Abu Ghosh
Seven years of Arabic in class did not prepare me for an immersion in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, located 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Jerusalem. So when the first local I was introduced to tried to hand me coffee – a drink I hate – I politely declined, saying I had just had lunch in the village. Unfortunately, that turned out to be an incredible misstep: you don’t say no when an Arab offers you coffee! I had heard, of course, about Arab hospitality, but knowing a custom is one thing, and experiencing it is quite another.
I was in Abu Ghosh at the invitation of Chen Kupperman, 30, founder and general manager of a unique Arabic language school, a non-profit organization called Blend.ar (short for Blend Arabic). Last month I heard about Blend.ar for the first time and, interested in the theory behind it, convinced Kupperman to let me follow participants during part of a four-year immersion program. days in Abu Ghosh. There I found myself mesmerized by both the concept and the atmosphere.
Kupperman had come up with the idea for Blend.ar after returning from a post-army tour of India, Ladakh and Burma. During the months he spent abroad, he learned the language of each country, immersed himself in their different cultures, and made friends with whom he always stays in touch.
Back in Israel, and still under the intoxicating influence of his trip, Kupperman decides to study Arabic.
âThere are so many Arabs in Israel that not knowing the language is a real handicap,â he said. âIn fact, it bothers me that so many people on both sides of the political spectrum have no real understanding of Arab culture. Without knowing Arabic, and without being aware of what, for Jewish Israelis, is a âforeignâ culture, talking about the so-called Israeli-Palestinian dispute makes no sense. “
So Kupperman signed up for a six-month intensive Arabic course which he said was excellent in many ways. But even though he was now fluent in the Arabic language, he felt something was missing from the course: he hadn’t even been to a single Arab home and hadn’t met any Israeli Arab outside the classroom. .
It was then that he decided to create Blend.ar, a new way of teaching Arabic in Israel. The studies would consist of formal classes, informal practice in small groups with Arab tutors and involvement in the daily life of Arab villagers.
But first he had to find the right Arab village in which to start the program. After checking out various other locations, Kupperman chose Abu Ghosh as the first village where Blend.ar students would interact with the locals.
The people of Abu Ghosh have always been friendly to the Jews. Indeed, during the British Mandate, which lasted from 1920 to 1948, locals even once helped an underground Jewish fighter escape from a British prison. And since the creation of Israel in 1948, the villagers of Abu Ghosh have become intimately involved in Israeli life.
Nevertheless, it took almost a year of preparatory work before the program could be implemented. Meanwhile, Kupperman and others from Blend.ar have rented and restored an abandoned house in the village. They spent time getting to know the locals and found dozens of villagers willing to open their hearts to the program. All were invited to communicate exclusively in Arabic with the students, although they were able to speak excellent Hebrew.
Blend.ar has been operating at full capacity since early 2020, continuing despite the coronavirus pandemic; the program that I observed in Abu Ghosh took place last month. Most of the nine people accepted into the program were single in their twenties, with a 45-year-old father and a 65-year-old. They had to have some fluency in Arabic because that is all they would hear from morning to night. And they had to agree never to mention anything, even remotely, related to politics.
âThat’s one of the things I really love about Blend.ar,â says Lior Dabush, 26, who has just completed a college degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science.
I arrived in Abu Ghosh on the second day of the four-day program and started by meeting Gilad Heimann. A major player in the Blend.ar family, active in its development and currently working on its expansion outside of Abu Ghosh, Heimann has always loved languages.
When his Arabic studies in high school failed to provide him with the necessary communication skills, Heimann vowed he would manage to speak fluently. This happened during his compulsory military service, when he learned the language and spoke Arabic with Druze soldiers in his unit. Heimann was responsible for the day-to-day running of Abu Gosh’s program and easily switched to alternate plans when something didn’t work out as planned.
Then, accompanied by Heimann, I followed the participants in their voluntary work. They cooked and served in restaurants, helped with dishes when needed, and stocked shelves or wrapped bags at convenience stores. Although I couldn’t always understand what was being said, I enjoyed watching the hosts and volunteers connect.
During his volunteer shifts on the program, 23-year-old Inbar Shenyuk, who grew up on a kibbutz, found that his hosts were exceptionally hospitable and viewed the Blend.ar group as guests rather than volunteer workers. They didn’t want to ask for or receive help, and Shenyuk had to make a real effort to convince his hosts to lend him a hand.
âI got a lot more from those four days than I expected,â he says, adding that his Arabic has improved tremendously during the program. “But the lessons I learned about the village and its people were even more important than fluency in the language.”
Volunteering in Abu Gosh takes many forms, and at 9 am on the third day of the program, I accompanied the group to the village community center. Heimann spoke briefly to the dozen elderly men who hung out there each morning, and then everyone played musical chairs until each Blend.ar participant was seated next to one or more villagers.
I listened to a student strike up a conversation with an 85 year old man. In seconds, and with relish, the man embarked on a fascinating story of 19th century weddings and how they created the unique social fabric of the village today.
Later that day, we took a village tour with Bana Abu Katish, a 19 year old second year journalism student at Hebrew University from Abu Ghosh who now works for Blend.ar. When not leading village tours or welcoming students to her family’s home and garden, Abu Katish teaches Arabic lessons to small groups of three or four students after graduation. end of their formal classes.
âTime flies,â she says, âas we practice Arabic through stories, games, visual aids and all kinds of other dynamic learning toolsâ.
As part of the tour, we visited the magnificent Grand Mosque, the second largest of its kind in Israel. His imam, Sheikh Raed, spoke about mosques in general and in particular about the history and structure of the village mosque.
Later we were hosted by Brother Olivier at the beautifully restored Crusader Church in Abu Ghosh. A remarkable French monk who found the church in terrible shape when he arrived in Abu Ghosh 40 years ago, Olivier is a gentle soul who surprisingly learned his excellent Hebrew from the local Muslims.
Blend.ar students often form strong relationships with the people of Abu Ghosh. During this program, participants spent several evenings in village pubs – where locals drink coffee and tea and occasionally enjoy a water hose – with the villagers they met.
All of this can lead to some strong moments. On the second evening of the program, Dani Rodov, 28, sat at a local hummus hangout with several villagers and a few people from the Blend.ar group. One of the locals invited everyone over to his house, and as they were sitting in the garden – speaking Arabic, of course – Rodov suddenly realized that with language no longer being a barrier, he felt like spending time with his friends at home, having the same easy conversations, the same kind of shared experiences.
While this particular program was specifically tailored for people whose Arabic was already good enough, Blend.ar offers a wide variety of beginner and intermediate classes, conversation classes for people who just want to practice the language, programs a month, summer courses, and unique weekends in Abu Ghosh. Prices vary depending on the program and the number of participating students. For some time now, Blend.ar has also been hosting webinars with Jewish federations in the United States. These unusual zoom seminars focus on Arab society and culture, sprinkled with a taste of the Arabic language.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private and personalized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.