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Israel Travels

Immersive Arabic program invites Israelis to blend into life in Abu Ghosh

Chen Kupperman’s innovative courses at Blend.ar teach more than just language — they bring participants to live, work, eat and socialize with Israeli Arabs around the clock

  • A Blend.ar participant volunteering at a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A Blend.ar participant volunteering at a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Blend.ar participants study Arabic in the Blend.ar house in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Blend.ar participants study Arabic in the Blend.ar house in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A participant of the Blend.ar program learns the ropes - in Arabic - at a local mini-market, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A participant of the Blend.ar program learns the ropes - in Arabic - at a local mini-market, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Participants in the Blend.ar program visit the Great Mosque in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Participants in the Blend.ar program visit the Great Mosque in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Blend.ar participants relax in Bana Abu Katish's family garden, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Blend.ar participants relax in Bana Abu Katish's family garden, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Blend.ar participants speak with older men at the community center in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Blend.ar participants speak with older men at the community center in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A nun sits inside the Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A nun sits inside the Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Blend.ar participants chat with fellow workers before a shift volunteering in a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Blend.ar participants chat with fellow workers before a shift volunteering in a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Ceiling of the Great Mosque in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Ceiling of the Great Mosque in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A Blend.ar participant speaking with an older man at the community center in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A Blend.ar participant speaking with an older man at the community center in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Brother Olivier poses for a photo in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Brother Olivier poses for a photo in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A view of Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A view of Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Seven years of classroom Arabic had not prepared me for immersion into the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, located 15 kilometers (nine miles) outside of Jerusalem. Thus, when the first local to whom I was introduced tried to hand me coffee — a drink I detest — I politely refused, saying that I had just come from lunch in the village. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a stupendous faux pas: You just don’t say no when an Arab offers you coffee! I had heard, of course, about Arabic hospitality, but learning about a custom is one thing, and experiencing it is something else entirely.

I was in Abu Ghosh at the invitation of 30-year-old Chen Kupperman, founder and general director of a unique Arabic language school, a non-profit called Blend.ar (short for Blend Arabic). Last month I heard about Blend.ar for the first time, and, interested in the theory behind it, I convinced Kupperman to let me shadow participants during part of a four-day immersion program in Abu Ghosh. While there, I found myself mesmerized by both the concept and the atmosphere.

Kupperman had come up with the idea for Blend.ar after returning from a post-army tour of India, Ladakh and Burma. During the months he spent abroad, he learned the language of each country, immersed himself in their different cultures, and made friends with whom he still remains in contact.

Once back in Israel, and still under the heady influence of his trip, Kupperman decided to study Arabic.

“There are so many Arabs in Israel that not knowing the language is a real handicap,” he says. “In fact, it bothers me that so many people on both sides of the political spectrum have no real understanding of Arab culture. Without knowing Arabic, and lacking an awareness of what, to Jewish Israelis is a ‘foreign’ culture, talking about the so-called Israeli-Palestinian dispute is meaningless.”

So Kupperman enrolled in an intensive six-month Arabic course that he says was excellent in many ways. But although he was now fluent in the Arabic language, he felt that something had been missing from the course: He hadn’t been to even one Arab home and hadn’t met with a single Arab Israeli outside the classroom.

Blend.ar founder 30-year-old Chen Kupperman in this undated photo. (Courtesy)

That’s when he decided to create Blend.ar, a new way of teaching Arabic in Israel. Studies would consist of formal classes, informal practice in small groups with Arab tutors and involvement in the daily lives of Arab villagers.

But first he had to find just the right Arab village in which to begin the program. After checking out various other venues, Kupperman decided on Abu Ghosh as the first village in which Blend.ar students would interact with the locals.

Residents of Abu Ghosh have always been friendly to the Jews. Indeed, during the British Mandate, which lasted from 1920 to 1948, locals once even helped a Jewish underground fighter escape from a British prison. And since Israel’s establishment in 1948, Abu Ghosh villagers have become intricately involved in Israeli life.

A view of Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Nevertheless, it took almost a year of groundwork before the program could be put into effect. During that time, Kupperman and others from Blend.ar rented and restored a deserted house in the village. They spent time getting to know the locals, and found dozens of villagers willing to open their hearts to the program. All were asked to communicate exclusively in Arabic with the students, despite being able to speak excellent Hebrew.

Blend.ar has been operating at full speed since the beginning of 2020, continuing despite the coronavirus pandemic; the program I observed in Abu Ghosh took place last month. Most of the nine people accepted for the program were singles in their 20s, with one family man of 45 and another 65-year-old. They were required to have some degree of fluency in Arabic, since that’s all they would hear from morning until night. And they had to agree never to mention anything even remotely related to politics.

“That is one of the things that I really like about Blend.ar,” says 26-year-old Lior Dabush, who just completed a university degree in Middle East studies and political science.

Blend.ar participants visit the 600-year-old cemetery during a tour of Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

I arrived in Abu Ghosh on the second day of the four-day program and began by meeting with Gilad Heimann. A major player in the Blend.ar family, active in its development and currently working on its expansion outside of Abu Ghosh, Heimann has always loved languages.

When his high school Arabic studies failed to provide him with the tools necessary for communication, Heimann vowed that he would somehow become fluent. That happened during his mandatory army service, when he learned the language and spoke Arabic with the Druze soldiers in his unit. Heimann was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Abu Gosh program and shifted easily to alternate plans when something didn’t work out as it was supposed to.

Afterward, accompanied by Heimann, I followed participants to their volunteer jobs. They cooked and served in restaurants, helped with washing up when necessary, and stocked shelves or packed bags at minimarkets. Although I couldn’t always understand what was said, I enjoyed watching hosts and volunteers connect.

A participant of the Blend.ar program learns the ropes, in Arabic, at a local mini-market, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

During his volunteer shifts on the program, 23-year-old Inbar Shenyuk, who grew up on a kibbutz, discovered that his hosts were unusually hospitable and saw the Blend.ar group as guests rather than volunteer workers. They didn’t want to ask for or receive help, and Shenyuk had to make a real effort to convince his hosts to let him lend a hand.

“I got far more out of these four days than I expected,” he says, adding that his Arabic improved immensely on the program. “But even more important than mastering the language were the lessons I learned about the village and its people.”

Blend.ar participants speak with older men at the community center in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Volunteering in Abu Gosh takes many forms, and at 9 a.m. on the third day of the program, I accompanied the group to the village community center. Heimann spoke briefly to the dozen or so elderly men who hang out there every morning, and then everyone played musical chairs until each Blend.ar participant was seated next to one or more of the villagers.

I listened as one student began a conversation with an 85-year old man. Within seconds, and with relish, the man launched into a fascinating tale about 19th-century weddings, and how they created the particular social fabric of the village today.

Blend.ar participants take a tour of Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Later on that day, we went on a tour of the village with Bana Abu Katish, a 19-year-old second-year journalism student at the Hebrew University and Abu Ghosh native now working for Blend.ar. When not leading village tours or hosting students in her family home and garden, Abu Katish tutors small groups of three or four students in Arabic after their formal classes are over.

“Time flies,” she says, “as we practice speaking Arabic through stories, games, visual aids and all kinds of other dynamic learning tools.”

Blend.ar participants relax in Bana Abu Katish’s family garden, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

As part of the tour we visited the stunning Grand Mosque, the second largest of its kind in Israel. Its imam, Sheikh Raed, spoke about mosques in general and specifically about the history and structure of the village mosque.

Participants in the Blend.ar program visit the Great Mosque in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Later, we were hosted by Brother Olivier at Abu Ghosh’s beautifully restored Church of the Crusaders. A remarkable French monk who found the church in terrible disrepair when he arrived in Abu Ghosh 40 years ago, Olivier is a gentle soul who, amazingly, learned his excellent Hebrew from the local Muslims.

Blend.ar students often form strong relationships with residents of Abu Ghosh. During this program, participants spent several evenings at village pubs — where locals drink coffee and tea, and enjoy the occasional water pipe — together with villagers they’d met.

Brother Olivier poses for a photo in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

All of which can lead to some powerful moments. On the second evening of the program, 28-year-old Dani Rodov sat at a local hummus hangout with several villagers and a few people from the Blend.ar group. One of the locals invited everyone back to his house, and as they sat in the garden — speaking Arabic, of course — Rodov suddenly realized that with language no longer a barrier, he felt as if he were passing the time with his friends at home, having the same easy conversations, the same kind of shared experiences.

Blend.ar participants chat with fellow workers before a shift volunteering in a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, October 2021. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Although this particular program was specifically tailored to people whose Arabic was already quite good, Blend.ar offers a wide variety of classes for beginners and intermediates, conversation courses for people who only want to practice speaking the language, month-long programs, summer courses, and unique weekends in Abu Ghosh. Prices vary according to the program and the number of students taking part. For some time, now, Blend.ar has also been conducting webinars with Jewish federations in the United States. These unusual zoom seminars focus on Arab society and culture, sprinkled with a taste of the Arabic language.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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