Intern Journal: Thrilled to be in Nablus!

I arrived in the West Bank just a week ago, and I am thrilled to be here! Last week was filled with orientation activities, which gave me an overview of TYO’s mission and approach, the cultural differences between Palestinians and Americans, and the joys and challenges of teaching in a cross-cultural setting.  I am already so impressed by TYO’s knowledgeable and committed staff, and I look forward to learning more from them as my three-month internship progresses. On a walking tour with Hassan and Haya, two of the Palestinian interns with whom I’ll be working on the Kalimatna Initiative, I saw the ancient market and winding streets of the old city, as well as the beautiful Turkish baths for which Nablus is famous.  Nablus’s architectural heritage impresses me as much as the dramatic natural landscape that surrounds the city – in every direction, steep rocky hills dotted with green pastures and evergreen trees jut up towards the sky.  I can easily understand why the Palestinians I have met here are so proud of this city.

Yesterday was my first day of classes.  I am going to be teaching a variety of English classes to mothers at TYO, core teachers, and university-age volunteers. Unfortunately, the stormy, rainy day kept most of my students at home, but despite the small class size, the students who showed up were totally energized and excited to be there.  I’m particularly excited to be teaching the moms.  TYO focuses on early childhood education, and because mothers play such an important role in the lives of their children, TYO also offers classes to moms.  Most of the moms I met yesterday have not completed high school, but they are committed to learning English because they want to be able to help their children.

Yesterday was also one of the first meetings for the American and Palestinian interns of the Kalimatna Initiative.  The purpose of the project is to create a multimedia guide to the city and culture of Nablus.  But what is culture exactly?  The answer to this question remained elusive yesterday as we discussed the challenges of defining and talking about culture.  To convey the complexities of culture, Chelsey, TYO’s program coordinator, drew a picture of an iceberg.  Together, the interns had to decide where on the iceberg to locate different aspects of culture, which ranged from concrete cultural manifestations such as clothing and food to more abstract concepts like family, self, friendship etc.

The iceberg exercise brought up a variety of important challenges for the group.  Even though two of the Palestinian interns have wonderful English, we had a lot of trouble defining and translating abstract concepts, such as deference to authority, work ethic, and even personal space.  This created an unequal balance of power in the group because the Americans could do the exercise much more quickly than the Palestinians. To some degree, the final answers didn’t reflect a group decision-making process to the extent that it could have.  Was the problem simply the language barrier or did it reflect cultural differences in how to talk and think critically about these abstract concepts?  As we go forward with the project, especially as we start exploring Nablus, I know that this balance of power will inevitably shift in the other direction, since the Americans will be unfamiliar with the language and culture.  In the end, the challenges of the iceberg exercise highlighted for me that patience, listening, and communication will be essential for the success of our initiative.


Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.