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Ever since I opened my eyes to the world cities have fascinated me, which mostly motivated my aspiration to study architecture. Early on, I attributed this fascination to cities' architectural juxtapositions of old and new, ugly and beautiful, big and small.
But after further exposure to the world - and particularly now that I am a doctoral student in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor - I came to realize that my fascination transcends physical elements. Now I know that the life within cities intrigues me; their mix of peoples, cultures and backgrounds.
My love of cities, historic ones in particular, has motivated me to research their challenge to adapt to contemporary needs while simultaneously maintaining their unique historic identities. This is what I am doing for my doctoral dissertation: investigating what makes cities distinctive.
MY FATHER'S hometown, Al-Salt in, Jordan provided me with my first case study, but I preferred to do a comparative analysis with other cities in the Middle East.
Aleppo in Syria, with its centuries-old historic fabric and the challenges of preservation, development, and tourism planning currently facing it presented an interesting comparison.
Still, there was something lacking. I wanted more.
I brainstormed with my adviser at the University of Michigan, whose wife is an Israeli citizen, and he suggested Acre, to which he had recently made a trip. Together we watched an on-line audio-visual report on the historic city, and I was simply intrigued.
But the big question was: As a Jordanian, how feasible would my trip be? And what consequences would it hold for my future? The latter worried me particularly, with the threat of excommunication by professional unions in Jordan.
Nevertheless, the more I played the tune in my head, the more I liked its challenge. To a strong advocate of peace the idea posed an opportunity to do something positive. It was also an opportunity that fit with one of my principles: that incremental steps yield more effective results than radical changes.
This would be my small step toward transcending political and cultural barriers, my opportunity to try to see the "other" and interact with it on different levels. It would allow me to judge for myself, to filter things through my own senses and no one else's.
Not surprisingly, my family was extremely supportive and calmed my fears of excommunication. However, they were genuinely worried about my personal safety, especially since, as Jordanians, we do not have any family contacts within Israel; no one at all.
They made me promise not to use inner city buses or go to shopping malls.
AFTER A rather frustrating first attempt to obtain a visitor's visa from the Israeli embassy in Amman (missing an important conference in Acre while stuck in Amman), I was helped out by professors Naomi Carmon and Rachelle Alterman at the Urban and Regional Planning Department at the Technion. The visa was smoothly issued in the US.
I embarked on my trip and made a transit stop in Amman, en route to Tel Aviv. But in order to make the 20-minute flight between the two capitals I had to go through a 5-hour stay at the airport in Jordan.
I got off the train in Haifa exhausted, disoriented, and simply scared. Two gentlemen who were boarding the next train helped me with my luggage. One of them actually exited the station with me, called a cab from his cell phone (although I offered mine), and waited until I assured him that I would be fine waiting for the cab alone.
My English-tainted-with-a-Jordanian-accent didn't deter him from extending a hand, nor from being a lovely human being.
THOUGH I mostly worked in Acre, my research took me elsewhere in Israel; I made frequent trips to Jerusalem and Haifa, visited Safed, Tel Aviv, Tiberias and Nazareth. But Haifa was the place where I felt completely at ease to the extent that, more than once, I broke my promise and used inner city buses and even went to a couple of malls.
Everyone I contacted or met with in Haifa was genuinely welcoming and extremely helpful. The graduate student who shares my research interests received me - a complete stranger - in her home, helped me to settle down in Acre, and supported me throughout my stay with contacts, interviews, and so much more.
The professors at the Technion met with me, provided official and technical support for my research, linked me with professors and students with similar research interests all over the country, and invited me to present my work in their department. The professors at Haifa University were no less welcoming or generous with their time, advice, and offer of support.
It was simply overwhelming. From the gentleman at the train station that first night, to Arab and Jewish cab and sherut - communal taxi - drivers, to students at the Technion and Haifa Universities, everyone was simply nice.
I PARTICULARLY enjoyed a trip from Haifa University down to the city, where the gregarious voice and contagious laughter of the Arab sherut driver, combined with the mix of Arab, Druse and Jewish students (probably more, but that was all my inexperienced eye could detect) bewildered me. All smiled and helped, offered advice on the best transportation back to Acre. Some even went out of their way - despite my objections - to take me literally by hand to the train station.
Similarly, and after a trip to the Technion, a student, also unaffected by my answer to his question about where I was from, went off the bus with me and walked me to my next stop. While waiting for one of my meetings at a small local caf in downtown Haifa, I observed how Arab owners interacted with their wide mix of clients. Everyone smiled, acted cordially and respectfully to each other; something - unfortunately - I thought other cities lacked.
Looking back, I realize that Haifa was the only place where people sincerely smiled, where the air was not thick with tension, and where there existed a wonderful mix of all backgrounds, religious and ethnic. Not only was there diversity - Israel is generally diverse - it was how people enjoyed the mix that distinguished Haifa.
One might speculate more about what makes Haifa so special, and propose theories that range from geographical compositions to demographic ones. What is important is that, like many other visitors, I will always cherish my Haifa memories.
The writer, a Jordanian architect-planner, is doing her doctoral work at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning the University of Michigan.