It was more like an international market, and it was full of young people working, laughing, eating, talking, or just chilling. I stood among the crowd and was confused; was this the same country that was seen so differently by others on social media platforms?
I ordered takeout from a falafel stand and smiled. Back in Abu Dhabi, I have falafel for breakfast almost every day with my friends at work. Falafel tasted like home, yet I was away from home, somewhere in the heart of Tel Aviv. I reflected for a moment and realised that history was being made; then a second later, I realised that I was the one making history.
“Where are you from?” was one of the first questions I was asked. After stating that I was from the UAE, I received such heart-warming responses like “OMG, We love the UAE!” and “We are so happy the Abraham Accords were signed, and we finally have the chance to take our families to the UAE.” But what stood out even more was the support and encouragement I received after I said that I was a researcher promoting tolerance, cultural diversity and coexistence. The conversations warmed my heart and quite frankly surprised me.
My internship at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies lasted a month. I would need more than just a diary entry to write down the experience in a way that would make others understand the true power of people-to-people connections. An agreement can be signed any day, but to have that agreement succeed requires people to meet and understand each other despite their different religion, ethnicity, culture, or even the way they consume knowledge.
It was a Monday morning when I walked into Tel Aviv University. It was a huge campus, and it made me want to relive my university days. The environment was nothing like the picture I had in my head. It felt like the entire world was attending the same campus. My initial fear was that I didn’t want to be seen differently by others, so I tried to fit in quickly. I immediately got lost, but made a friend who pointed me in the right direction and talked to me as we walked towards the Moshe Dayan Centre. I was shy at first, but I met Efrat, the friendliest face. She then introduced me to the director of the centre and the other researchers.
The exchange of knowledge at the Moshe Dayan Center made me realise how important it was to simply communicate and listen. Two individuals with the same interests, in this case, merely coexist with one another and can have different ideas and perspectives, even when specialised in the same field. Slowly we started to bridge the knowledge gap created by the media. We began to look and speak to one another as who we were, not where we came from and what we believed in.
Weeks later, we were laughing while drinking tea. We were together organising the first conference with the Emirati-based private think-tank, Trends Research and Advisory. The conference highlighted the Abrahamic Accords, and I would be a speaker. What scared me the most was speaking on a subject ‘out loud’ rather than writing it down and publishing it via a computer. But I received a lot of support, not just from my team, but from the entire Moshe Dayan family, who made me feel as if I was among friends. It turns out this wasn’t just a fleeting moment, and I can now truly call them dear friends.
I always devoted my Fridays to family gatherings, and in Tel Aviv it was no different. I spent my Fridays with the families of the ones who have now become friends of mine. I was invited to a friend’s home to experience Shabbat with their family. Before we sat to eat, I heard the prayers, and in that specific moment, I knew what tolerance sounded and felt like: to share other moments, blessings, and values and still be respected for being “different”. These are the moments when even an outsider starts feeling like an insider.
We sat at the table, and I learned that the word “kosher”, meant that the food on the table fit the Jewish dietary laws. This meant that meat and milk products were not mixed together. That same night I learned many other phrases such as “Shalom Alekhem,” which is very similar to the Arabic “Salam Alekom.” I smiled and realised there were so many similarities, even between the differences.
I sat at a dinner table with a family who made me feel like I was one of them. I felt safe in the homes, offices, universities, and streets of a country that wasn’t spoken about much as I was growing up, even though we are both a part of the Middle East. The people I met started to become people I know, and from strangers, they became friends.
Goodbyes were never something I was good at. I was on a Zoom call with my friends at work a week before leaving Tel Aviv and told them how much I loved it there. I wanted to extend my stay and explore more. No matter how much I felt I was getting to know the people, there was always something new to learn. The best thing about my experience was that I was among people who were open to communicating and were patient enough to teach others about who they are as people. A month can reveal a lot, but I knew deep down that I would be back again.