Miracle in Bethlehem: My Adventures with the Palestinians

I’ve been wanting to share my experience in Palestine and with the Palestinians I’ve met in my travels.  My journey begins a couple of years ago as I working out my first adventure following Microsoft.  It started with planning my trip to the SharePoint Conference in Dubai.  It would be my first trip to the middle east and hence my first opportunity to visit the holy land and potentially see Jordan’s Petra or the Pyramids.  I posted on my blog about my intention to visit the region and got an overwhelming response.

Hey Joelo,

Everyone will be pleased to meet you in Jordan. It will be a visit to link you with our pioneers customers, partners and community stars as well.

A qualified number of SharePoint community pioneers here in Jordan. They are all working together to escalate the impact and number of specialists in WSS/MOSS.

Am covering Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanon as TSP-SharePoint. Meeting you my friend and guru around will be a day to remember. About Petra thing, i will ensure you a masterpiece trip to that place.

Am going to attend both Events in Dubai and Istanbul, for now am trying to find my self a session talking about the value of building Verticals on top of SharePoint.

Thanks joelo, looking forward meeting you during Dubai and Istanbul event.

Regards,

Zayed

Technical Solution Professional – SharePoint @ Microsoft

 

You already know what I’m going to say 🙂 I forwarded this post to the members of JSUG and they’re super excited!

Either way, I’ll definitely be seeing you at the SharePoint Conference in Dubai!

Muhanad

I also got an enthusiastic response from “MOSS is my middle name” another SharePoint guy in the region.  Ultimately it was through his help that I was able to make it to Jerusalem and the holy land.

About the "debate" between Jordan to Jerusalem – well, Jordan is a wonderful place, but coming there and not entering Israel?!

You know that Moses begged to do that, and I quote:

"And I besought the LORD at that time, saying: ‘O Lord GOD… Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country…" (Deuteronomy 3:23)

So we all hope to see you here soon!

And to Muhanad  – maybe we should unite?

MOSS is my Middle Name

So I worked with Zayed and Mo as well as MOSS to work out the logistics.  In no time at all I was floating in the dead sea with the incredible dead sea mud all over me, speaking at the SharePoint User group in Jordan, and found myself on the road to Petra.  Mo had a problem with his tire and we really started bonding.  Out in the desert it was getting late and the tire was stuck.  We just couldn’t get it off.  After the military tried and failed, I was starting to loose hope, just then a couple of chicken farmers stopped and risked their lives to get off the tire.  Literally the farmer was under the car kicking it as hard as he could when the rust or whatever was holding it, finally gave way.  In the subsequent next few hours I’d make some friendships that would last forever.  Yep BFFs. What would happen next both shocked me and opened my eyes.  Something in our conversation led to the fact that these guys I had been giving my full trust were Palestinian!  They just happened to live in Jordan.  (Well ironically Mo had lived his entire life outside of Palestine in Jordan and the U.S., and there’s much more to that story and why he speaks English like he’s from North Carolina and watches MTV.)  I was sitting in the car after midnight going through military checkpoints with Palestinians!  Wild stuff.  I had these flashbacks to suicide bombers, and youtube videos about indoctrination and brainwashing of kids.  These guys didn’t want to kill me.  I could see they sincerely wanted to be my friend and enjoy my company. 

I had to ask.  What is the story?  What is going on with Israel and Palestine or more specifically what’s up with the Israelis and Palestinians?  I got a couple of very personal perspectives.  Speaking of the war and what has happened since in the occupation.

Jordan SharePoint User Group – March 2008

They had gone way out of their way to help me.  What was very obvious to me was these two guys were giving me a royal treatment and in any risk would have come to my aid.

I ended up needing to spend the day I would have flown out, enjoying Petra, and yes it does deserve to be on the 7 wonders list.  It’s incredible.  Again it was great riding Donkeys with Mo.  He risked his life on that one to make sure I had a good time.  The combination of cliff and donkey with the single rope around the donkey’s neck was a serious adventure. After that adventure Mo and Zayed would put me in a taxi that would deliver me to the border by my choice since I couldn’t make the flight.

I’d meet MOSS is my middle name at the other side of the King Hussein bridge.  The only crossing from Jordan to Israel through the West Bank.  MOSS is a Jew, and I definitely consider what he did in driving to the border with his little Jewish yamaka cap through the occupied territory of the west bank.  Military guys in street clothes on street corners with big guns. It was pretty wild stuff.  I’d later find out from him that his wife did think he was risking his life and that he could have been killed.  He pretty much hadn’t ever done anything like that… ever! (From what I know, maybe since everyone serves in the military he had done stuff like that, but that’s obviously different.) 

Meron, a friend of MOSS’s would take me to the BYU Jerusalem center and to all quarters of Jerusalem and what a holy experience that was.  I got his perspective on Israel and what was going on with the settlements and Jerusalem. MOSS would take me around Galilee and Golan Heights and give me incredible perspective of seeing that his house could convert into a bomb shelter by simply closing off the outside rooms.  We talked so much that MOSS’s throat was sore the next day.  He asked me to stay with him due to my curiosity of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath)… that night in itself was an incredible life experience. 

I’d later meet back up with Mo and Zayed in Dubai and I’d also meet back up with Mohammed Saleh, Bander and a group of Jordanian Palestinians and Todd Klindt.  Todd and I would end up spending our evenings with these guys and even one night when we were relaxing in the lounge at the hotel…  You could say I wanted to get at the heart of the issue.  In a group of about eight Palestinians attendees I asked them… So what is actually going on?  Again, more perspective and sharing of personal experiences about life since the ‘67 war.

The time I had in Dubai bonding with my new friends and sharing some crazy adventures with Mo ending up in a Iranian hospital.  I felt like I had really made some life long friends.  (It’s there I would first meet Neo from Iran and the world would become even smaller. Adventures with Neo across India and another misadventure will have to wait.)

I’d see Mo at more than a half dozen conferences around the world including TechEd US, TechEd Europe.  As well he’d also be recognized for his community contributions and be awarded SharePoint MVP.  The global community has embraced him.  It’s awesome.

At Teched U.S. I was hanging out with a guy I work with and was mentioning I was going to be in his neck of the woods.  I knew he was from Jerusalem, and had assumed he was Israeli, but in the course of things found out he was Palestinian.  When I started talking to him about my visit to Jerusalem and the friends I had made in Jordan he opened up.

His story of growing up in the occupation and one night he’s messing around as normal teenagers do, with one of his friends and they both get shot and he’s in the hospital and his friend is dead.  His life changes overnight and he pleads to not live a life in prison.  He’s extradited to the U.S. on a the plea bargain and on a student visa goes to school.  He hasn’t been back since and isn’t sure what would happen to him if he did.  I had a chance to meet his family.  We’ve become good friends as well, sharing our faith and thoughts on the future.

In 2010, I was invited to speak at TechEd Middle East which would be in Dubai.  I’m a HUGE fan of the global TechEd conference.  Even better I was going to co-speak with Mo. 

Mo is a smart guy and his influence in the community had really grown over the past year.  He invited myself and Michael Noel to speak at the Jordan SharePoint Saturday he was organizing.  We were all blown away when later I’d find out around 500 people had signed up to attend.  In planning my trip I was contacted by Huthiafa Afanah and Saed Shela to launch the IT Pro SharePoint Community and user group in Palestine while I was in the middle east.  I’d already be close with the Jordan event.  It made a lot of sense, but ultimately the cost and number of days wasn’t going to work with my plans and ended up spending time with a Palestinian in Qatar who took me around Doha and proving to me that the Palestinian culture is one of love, dedication and devotion.  As a favor to a friend of a friend, I was picked up at the airport and spent the afternoon and the evening.  His story was his parents were displaced to Qatar, he was born in Qatar, but does not have Qatari citizenship.  As Judo world champion level he’s competed globally in the sport, but when he competes the leadership simply on his behalf lets him travel on a Qatari passport.  They said he would actually be given the passport if he continued the sport for a commitment of 3 years.  7 years later he still hasn’t been given the passport.

 

TechEd Middle East was awesome.  Mo was great.  Together our session was the top scoring session at TechEd in the SharePoint/Office track.  SharePoint Saturday Jordan was a huge success.  What stood out was a group that stayed behind.  Apparently since I wasn’t able to make the trip to Palestine, a group and actually a subset of the group that wanted to come was able to come.  Some twenty SharePoint enthusiasts made their way to SharePoint Saturday Jordan through security and red tape that would make anyone uncomfortable.  I was incredibly humbled by their passion.

I was excited when I found out there was going to be a SharePoint Saturday Palestine, and on top of that Saed Shela who was organizing it with Huthiafa was going to be able to contribute to travel expenses.  After getting the support I needed from work to go, I was ecstatic.  Not only would I be able to meet up with this passionate group, I found out I’d be meeting up with Mo in Tel Aviv for his first ever visit to Palestine and the holy land.  We had plans to go to Bethlehem and Hebron.  I was super excited.

I flew into Tel Aviv through Munich on El Al.  My mistake, the Israeli security started in Germany and I was under suspicion from the beginning.  Last time I was in Israel I had a challenge making my flight.  Suffice to say I’ve travelled through a number of Islamic countries around the world from Morocco to Indonesia and Malaysia to UAE, Bahrain & Egypt.  I do have a lot of Arabic friends and feel like I have a much better understanding of their challenges.  It’s not fun being interrogated and considered suspect by default.  

With a couple of my American SharePoint Speaker friends and Mo we met up in Tel Aviv and stopped in Jerusalem for the view and then onto the West Bank to our hotel in Ramallah.  The next morning we went to SharePoint Saturday Palestine.

image

It was incredible looking out over the valley in Ramallah.  Saed showed us where his house was up the hill.  He told us stories about how he and his family were huddled up in a central room in the house as the walls were blasted all night with a tank sitting out in front of his house just a few years ago.  Friends and family that didn’t make it though that excursion.  It’s wild to hear it so personal.

Going from Berlin to Palestine and seeing those walls and towers definitely makes me reflective.  I rode by the Anne Frank house this year on bikes with Mo.  Made me reflect on how people can easily be persecuted and easy to look the other way.  A visit to Dachau on this same trip really made that whole experience very personal.

After the conference we sat down with Mercy Corp, and the Ministry of IT.  Our little SharePoint Saturday Palestine became local news.  Here were a bunch of Americans who were willing to come to this little part of the world and share what we had.  Hope… and a little bit of SharePoint love. 

Meeting Tova a Jewish girl from Mercy corp hit me really hard.  Knowing what I know about the conflict of interest here was one who understood that things weren’t going to get better by making bigger walls.  It’s much easier to do nothing, why risk your life?  She was up to some good… with a focus of “Outsource to Palestine” a message of hope.  What she was risking was great, but the reward was huge.  Many would look at what she’s been doing and say she’s crazy.  I was super super impressed, and thought…What can I do?  I’m not a politician.  The best I can do is tell my story and continue to encourage my friends to provide hope.

The next morning we drove by the ominous wall, and got stopped in horrible traffic by a check point.  Seeing Israeli soldiers was a bit scary, but we kept our cool despite driving by what looked like a covered up dead body and was.

Most of our local friends had never been to the dead sea despite being by it for their entire life.  So a few of us got in while others were able to feel it for the first time.  Next we’d go to my favorite city in the West Bank.  Bethlehem.  The Church of the Nativity has a recent and old history.  We were there to see where Christ was born.  To me here was a city of Palestinian Christians who were feeling the oppression of occupation, and with my Muslim friends I was able to share my faith in Christ.  We were able to share the common belief of significance of the life of Jesus. I had been reading the Qur’an so it was great to be able to share.

The miracle in Bethlehem not only being able to stand in this holy place, but sharing it with friends of different faiths and share a common hope and prayer.  As we walked through the city we came by a poster.  SharePoint 2010 training poster.  How crazy is this!!!??? Here I am with the top SharePoint people in Palestine and here plastered to a trash can and on the sides of the building is a poster promoting training on the tool whose expertise we share.  The guys didn’t even recognize the company.  I couldn’t believe it.  Technology is something that I believe does lead to opportunity, and does get people thinking about how it can help them provide for their families.  In all of my travels I’ve seen posters, but seeing a SharePoint 2010 poster in Bethlehem was a miracle.  It was huge.

image

After Bethlehem we drove on to Hebron.  It was no more than a couple of weeks since we had heard of a car getting gunned down, so we had our guard up.  The city was divided by a Jewish settlement on one side and Palestinian on the other.  Our interest was in the tomb of the patriarchs, but unfortunately it was closed due to a Jewish holiday.  What was wild was the armed guard and razor wire separating us from the mosque. 

Getting back to the airport was another adventure.  A couple of us didn’t have flights until late that night essentially it was 3 or so in the morning that we needed to be at the airport, so we hung out with some Israelis.  Getting another perspective on life as a Palestinian who lived in Israel who essentially considers himself Israeli.  There are multiple levels of status and this guy worked in Tel Aviv.  Was interesting to hear how those who live on that side of the wall due to standard of living or ability to move care less about statehood and more about the power of the passport.  He was definitely an advocate for outsourcing to Palestine as he was in that business, essentially running a business that worked with Israeli companies and provided development resources.

My thoughts?  I’d love to see the occupation ended.  I don’t see the settlements doing much more than creating swiss cheese out of the land and creating future chaos.  I’d love to see peace in the middle east.  I think Palestine should be recognized.  The way to peace is by people hope of a better tomorrow.  I have been impacted by the passion and compassion of the people and I know you would as well.  I am concerned the United States role in promoting peace has been seriously hampered and minimized.  I’d like to see progress and get Palestine back on the real road to recovery.  That’s my story.

SharePoint Saturday Palestine in Ramallah – 2010 –>

 

Additional Resources in the effort to build up the IT sector in Palestine:

Outsource to Palestine

If you look at these articles you’ll notice that is IT that’s moving forward, the politics will catch up eventually.   The State Department announced on December 17 the launch of the Palestine Information Communications Technology Capacity Building Initiative (PITI). PITI is a collaborative project between the State Department, USAID, Partners for a New Beginning, Cisco, Google, HP, Intel, Medcor and Salesforce.com

Zayed assures me that Microsoft continues to invest millions as well.  I see it in education especially.

Published by

Joel Oleson

I LOVE traveling our little planet. In my quest to visit every country in the world I've got about 35 UN countries left! I'm not just country hopping, but looking for the most immersive cultural experiences and capturing them as photos and videos. Yes, I'm also a geek. I've been recognized as a Microsoft Regional Director, a community leadership award. When not traveling, I'm in paradise in sunny southern California as I'm a Senior IT Manager at Blizzard Entertainment.

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