Meet Yoram Meron, a teacher and author who has learned first-hand about the folkways and mores of the Arab culture.
Arabic was not part of the curriculum in the 1950s when Yoram Meron, director of the Givat Haviva School for Arabic Language and Middle Eastern Studies, was in high school.
Curiosity to learn about the Arab people, their language and culture - coupled with having to choose a subject for a final year high-school project - led Meron to embark on what was to become a career in teaching Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. He also wrote Ahlan Wasahlan, an Arabic-language textbook, and has published collections of fables and folk stories gleaned mainly from elderly residents of Arab villages throughout Israel.
"After all these years, it's still difficult to put my finger on exactly what created my interest in the Arabs" says Meron, a member of kibbutz Hazorea, where his German-born parents settled in the l930s.
"However, one thing I do remember affecting me deeply was attending a meeting in Haifa in the late 1950s when the Arab population of Israel was under military administration," recalls the soft-spoken, sandy-haired teacher and author who looks far younger than his 66 years.
The meeting Meron attended was held at the Mai Cinema and attended by both Arabs and Jews demonstrating against the restrictive military administration imposed on the country's Arab citizens.
"To travel alone to the city in those days was like going on a voyage to America," recounts Meron.
"The people I met in Haifa gave further impetus toward my choice of subject for the school project. The Arab people were so different - their language, culture, mentality, home environment and, of course, their food. I was totally fascinated," he says.
Post-army service and back on the kibbutz, Meron spent time with a group of Arab youths belonging to the Pioneer Arab Youth Movement who lived and worked at Hazorea. This was when he decided to study Arabic.
"I approached the late Eliazer Be'eri, a member of Hazorea, who at that time headed the Arab Department of Mapam. He sent me off to spend a month with Mapam party worker Sabri Choury in Kfar Yassif."
The young kibbutznik lived with and worked alongside the Choury family in their olive orchards, taking many a sojourn through the Galilee with his host when on party business. His interest was not only in the language, culture and food but the fables and colorful folk stories reiterated by those he met.
In the days when kibbutzim didn't exactly encourage members to study - and then only what was deemed necessary for and chosen by the kibbutz - Meron's request to study Arabic fell on deaf ears, and he was sent to work in the cotton fields. Three years and a great deal of cotton later, he got his wish in l964 and enrolled in the then-fledgling Arabic language department at the Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Center for Peace.
Following studies at the Hebrew University, he began his teaching career in Shomria, the kibbutz high school where he himself studied.
A long working relationship and deep friendship built up between Meron and fellow Arabic language teacher Nimer Ahmad Masarawah from Baka-el-Gharbiya. Without any textbooks to work from in the early l980s, the pair simply sat down and wrote one of their own. The storyline involved two young kibbutzniks who decided to hitchhike to Jenin. Each adventure brought in new vocabulary.
The teachers applied for Education Ministry recognition but were initially rejected.
"They more or less said they could not endorse a book that encourages students to hitchhike - and to Jenin, no less," explains Meron, shrugging his shoulders.
However, the ministry eventually capitulated, the book was published and both Meron and Masarwah were awarded a prestigious prize by the same ministry a year later, recognizing them as outstanding creative teachers of the Arabic language.
Meron, a modest man, hesitates before mentioning his many other achievements. His second book dealt with how to read different texts written in Arabic. Then he embarked on the seemingly endless wealth of fables and folklore to be found in the Arab villages of Wadi Ara and the Galilee.
The third book of tales from the Arab vales was recently published in Arabic with Hebrew translations, as were its predecessors. Condensed versions of the first two books have been translated into English and German.
The first book, entitled Tales of the Wadi and published in 1992, was co-written with Riad Kabha from Barta'a village, at the time director of Givat Haviva and these days head of the Wadi Ara Bismah municipality. Meron collaborated with Masarwah and Carmela Shehadi-Mishaiel from Shfaram on the second anthology, called The Pomegranate Seed, published in 1997. The book, chronicling 15 original folk tales told by Arab women, was dedicated to Masarwah, who died before its publication.
The 50 tales in the latest bilingual sequel, Village Tales, written by Meron with co-authors Kabha and Rafa Abu Raya from Sakhnin, is but a drop in the ocean of Galilee folklore passed on orally from generation to generation.
"The wide range of communities and religions and diversity of the dialects spoken by inhabitants were among the many contributing factors that made it difficult to choose the stories, categorize and write them down. We decided to adopt as our guiding principle the goal of maintaining a suitably representative sample of all the region's Arab inhabitants," explains Meron, sitting in his Givat Haviva office. Photographs on the wall show him shaking hands with Palestinian dignitaries, as well as a number of past and the present president of Israel.
"In translating into Hebrew, we attempted as much as possible to maintain the spirit and sounds of Arabic, while taking care to abide by the rules of the Hebrew language," says Meron, who is already working on the next collection of Galilee tales. He hopes to eventually record for posterity tales from every one of the hundreds of Arab villages throughout the Galilee.
Commenting on the Meron-Kabha-Abu Raya anthology, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua wrote: "There is no place in Israel where Palestinian Arabs were not also partners and a presence, whether directly or indirectly. If we do not understand and learn their presence and deep attachment to their villages, our attachment will not be complete and developed. The identity of the Arab-Israel minority in Israel does not necessarily contradict our Israeli identityâ€¦ The identity of a national minority enriches the identity of the national majority, concentrates its attention, variegates its tolerance and thereby strengthens the better values of democracyâ€¦
"The authors' diligent work in collating the stories of the Galilee villages is another facet in the important and unending effort toward a deeper acquaintance between the majority and the minority in the common homeland," concluded one of Israel's most widely read authors and prominent intellectuals.