Faster, Higher, Stronger

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

Maybe it has something to do with where she was born and raised, or maybe it's something with which her parents laced her chocolate drink when she was little. Whatever the reason is, Olfat Haider - in her personality, appearance and body language - projects a sense of supreme freedom and an ability to achieve anything she fancies. If she were a Jewish sabra, people would say she has more than a little Israeli chutzpah. But despite the fact that she is a Muslim, Arab Haider has that same chutzpah, in the positive sense of the word, and a thirst to drink life's full cup.

For example, presently, at the age of 41, she is getting ready to run in the Barcelona marathon in March. Toward the end of the year, she will join a team that plans to trek to the South Pole, to mark the centenary (by then it will be almost 101 years ) of the first expedition to reach the South Pole, led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. It's an all-woman team whose goal is to draw attention to the global water crisis. Haider was chosen, along with an Indian woman, to represent Asia. The expedition is expected to last about 80 days.

Haider (left) in her volleyball days. Credit: Yanai Yechiel

The expedition across the frozen continent will not be Haider's first challenging experience, although it is particularly extreme in nature. The first was a Jewish-Arab, cross-Israel bicycle journey to heighten environmental awareness from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat, in which Haider was the sole female Arab participant; she was also one of four people about whom a National Geographic Channel film of the trip, "Against the Wind," focused.

Furthermore, the Antarctica expedition will not be her first to the southernmost continent. In 2004, she was invited by the Israeli trekker and mountain climber Doron Erel to join an expedition to Antarctica, called Breaking the Ice, which he and others were organizing. The "ice" in question was actually that which separates Jews and Palestinians.

"It was an amazing experience," Haider recalls. "There were four Jews, including an Ethiopian woman, along with me and three guys from the Palestinian Authority. The goal was to scale a previously unclimbed mountain and name it. We sailed from Chile. The boat could not get close to the mountain; it stopped at a certain point and from there we walked another few days. We did the climb with the aid of ropes, three climbers per rope, and learned how to secure one another. There is now a 2,000-meter mountain in Antarctica called the 'Israeli-Palestinian Friendship Mountain.'"

For Haider, every project that ends is the start of a new one. After the expedition to Antarctica, she and Erel turned Breaking the Ice into a nonprofit organization that promotes coexistence through a connection to nature. An American group called Search for Common Ground awarded the members of the Antarctica project a prize for their unusual method of seeking peace. While in the United States to accept the prize in 2005, Haider joined an international organization, Outward Bound, which develops leadership through nature activities and has branches in 56 countries.

"It's very connected to my world," says Haider, who was a physical education instructor at that time. "It's all about going into the field with a knapsack on your back, canoeing, trekking or mountain climbing. The organization was very impressed with what we were doing in Breaking the Ice and invited me to become an instructor. They do the same thing - forge connections between white, black and Asiatic Americans. I said to myself, 'The world is so big and I am working in schools with three-meter-high fences. How long can that go on?' So I was very happy to get the opportunity and I stayed for four years."

Olfat Haider. "I won't be able to climb for many more years, but I can find a man anytime."Credit: Yanai Yechiel

Haider did a year-long training program at the Outward Bound School in North Carolina and then worked with young Americans in the Appalachians. "The work there connected me even more strongly with our conflict. I asked for financial aid for a project proposal, which was to bring over Israeli high-school students, Jewish and Arab, so they could undergo the same experience. I received a budget and for three years I went to Israel and chose 10 high schoolers - five Jews and five Arabs - and brought them to Outward Bound for the summer. It was so successful that in the fourth year the organization decided to open a branch in Israel. Doron and I are the managers. During the year we took groups to Galilee and the Negev, and in the summer we went to the Alps."

What did you achieve in these expeditions?

Haider: "After the Antarctica experience I discovered that when you take people out for some activity in nature, it starts with the fact that they all come in the same simple attire, without status symbols. Everyone is cold, everyone gets dirty and everyone gets tired at the same time and in the same way. That in itself generates a dynamic of sharing rather than differentiation. It's very different from sitting everyone down together in a room and making them talk. I worked with them on building trust, personal acquaintanceship. On conducting dialogues about things that occupy them in everyday life. It was only at the end that we talked about their feelings vis-a-vis the conflict. And after each program, they undertook to think about a joint project in the community."

Sand and sea

The landscape of Haider's childhood is one of open expanses of sand and sea: She grew up in a lone house that remained on the seashore in the village of Samir after its inhabitants were evacuated to make way for the construction of a train station.

"We had no neighbors and there was nothing around," she recalls. "Everyone was removed and then the whole project stopped for 15 years and we remained there alone. My siblings and I grew up with the animals on the seashore, and played mostly with one another."

Twelve years ago, the Haiders, too, were relocated; they moved to a private home on Mount Carmel. Haider's father is a construction engineer who owns a private firm, her mother is a social worker, and all four children grew up to be athletes, after leaving various musical instruments by the wayside. Olfat's older brother, Rafat ("Rafi" ) Haider, whose height is 2.02 meters, played on the Maccabi Haifa basketball team in Israel's Super League. Her other brother, Nashat (1.97 meters ), plays for Hapoel Haifa. Her sister, Adir (1.75 meters ), swims.

The Antarctica trek in 2004. One of many challenges udnertaken by Haider.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

"People used to say we ate spaghetti as children, because we came out so thin and tall," quips Haider.

Haider, herself 1.80 meters tall, started to play volleyball at age 13: "I met someone who was the physician of a volleyball team and he said I should give it a try. I really liked it and started off on the women's team in the Mateh Asher district, which trained in Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk. We were first in the league for years, and then we had no competition in Israel, so we only played in Europe."

Haider was captivated by volleyball. What she liked best about the game, in contrast to basketball, was the absence of physical contact with players on the rival team. But she quickly discovered that this was a comparatively minor problem.

"At first," she says, "I thought my primary challenge would revolve around school and training. But I found out that my major challenge was to cope with my own society. My friends in high school thought that if I was an athlete and got off school whenever I wanted, that meant I was free in every way. They took it negatively and would ask me to go out, saying: 'Your parents don't know where you are anyway.'" But Haider was not diverted from her chosen path. "I believed in it and my parents were supportive, so I did very well in volleyball. I was on the Israeli national team. But then I realized that I was living a conflict. Arab society thought I was an 'easy' woman; Jewish society didn't accept me because I was an Arab. Every time we went abroad to represent Israel in tournaments, I went through all the humiliation Arabs experience at the airport here. That was my great dilemma: I was part of the national team of Israel, a country whose anthem and flag do not represent me, and I was being humiliated as an Arab, even though abroad I did my best to represent the country honorably."

Haider later experienced the acrid taste of discrimination again. After majoring in physical education at the Wingate Institute, a sports college, she taught for 12 years in Arab schools in Haifa and Galilee.

"Jewish schools refused to hire me," she explains. "One day my volleyball coach, who knew I was working in the north and looking for a place closer to home, said he had found me a junior high in Haifa. They were looking for a physical education instructor and for a volleyball coach to strengthen the school team. I asked him if they knew I was an Arab and he didn't understand the connection. I told him that he should first inform the school that I was an Arab and that I would call them afterward. After speaking to them he told me, 'I guess you know the reality better than I do: they don't want you.'"

Haider can easily be mistaken for a secular Jewish woman from north Tel Aviv. That sometimes brings about embarrassing situations, such as that which happened in the swimming pool at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology and heightened her identity problems.

"I was teaching a group of children to swim. I removed the floats from a six-year-old boy and held him in the water, and he swam," she relates. "A girlfriend came over and asked me when I was finishing the lesson. I said in about five minutes. The boy asked me what language I was speaking. Arabic, I told him, and he asked why. I replied that I was an Arab. He jumped out of my hands and started to swim in a panic, and to shout and scream. It's a covered pool, so everyone heard him. His father and the pool director ran over and asked me what happened to the boy. I told his father that he had just found out I was an Arab and had gone into a traumatic fit."

Experiences like this made Haider want to become involved in projects of Jewish-Arab coexistence, she says. Among other things, she pursued this direction by taking a Tourism Ministry course for tour guides, followed by additional university studies in the departments of geography and Land of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa. At present, Haider is an M.A. student in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University and program director at Beit Hagefen, an Arab-Jewish cultural center in Haifa.

Nothing personal

The economic crisis of 2008-2009 led to the freezing of private donations from the United States for Haider and Erel's Breaking the Ice initiative. The organization cut back on its activity, and all that remained were the summer outings to North Carolina. Then in 2010, Haider was approached by a Swiss organization, Coexistence, which promotes Palestinian-Israeli dialogue through art. "By chance, all their volunteers are Alpinists who wanted to climb Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, together, and asked us to join," she explains.

At the time, Haider was attending the University of Haifa and was a member of its volleyball team. "I told the sports director about the project. He liked the idea," she says. "In July 2010, Doron and I organized a group of eight students - four Jews and four Arabs - and spent two weeks climbing to the peak. It was completely funded by the Swiss organization. Afterward, the Swiss said they would like to do this every year. I thought it was not appropriate. I am interested in promoting group dynamics via nature, so walking tied to a rope and being silent the whole way does not meet my needs. I suggested a different idea: a route around Mont Blanc, passing through France, Switzerland and Italy. They went for it but said that we needed to recruit donors in Israel, too. I approached the university and the municipality in Haifa, and Beit Hagefen, and they were all supportive. Since then two groups have made the trek and I am now working on organizing a third group."

While Haider hasn't played volleyball for the past two years, she has been competing in triathlons and is now training for the marathon in Barcelona. "I will be 42 in September, and I want to celebrate by running 42 kilometers," she declares.

Unmarried and childless at that age, Haider is considered something of an anomaly in Arab society - as well as among Jews, where she says she feels more at home.

"I am lucky to have such parents," she explains. "Whatever I do and whatever I think, no matter how crazy - they support me. And beyond them, I don't care." It's only recently that she has begun to think seriously about finding a life partner, she adds, but she has not yet summoned the inner strength, or time, to strike up a relationship.

"I had a few boyfriends in the past, but I decided it didn't suit me," she says. "I am afraid to lose my freedom. Even when things were good, I still felt suffocated. I have not yet found the man whom I want to be with and whose absence I would feel. True, sometimes I think it would be nice to have a spouse, but beyond that I am completely absorbed with what I do."

Your biological clock doesn't leave much more time, if any, to think about this.

"Children are fun for half an hour, but beyond that I don't see it right now. One can always adopt, or maybe I will marry someone who already has children."

Will you look for an Arab as a partner?

"Not necessarily: I am looking for a human being. My father said, 'You have all the options and you haven't even found a good Jew?' But I feel fine with the way things are. When I told my parents about the expedition to the South Pole, they said: 'Yes, there are those who raise children and those who travel and celebrate all over the world.' You can't have everything. One thing is always at the expense of another. I have the greatest respect for my parents, who brought me up in this way and respected my choices. They themselves have to cope with their society, which says: 'How long is she going to run after balls and wander around abroad?' When my sister got married I told them, 'If you want to rejoice in a daughter who is getting married, do it now, because you may not have a second chance.'"

Do you see fruits from your labors?

"Yes. The message is that deep down we are all human beings and we can connect at a personal level, and that's all that counts, irrespective of whether you are an Arab or a Jew. People who at first don't want to hear about Palestinians eventually become good friends with them. I try to take all these people one step back, and get them to observe themselves from a personal perspective, not a political one. The boy in the pool also finally returned to my group. At first they put him in a different group, and his father told me, 'Don't take it personally and don't be angry at him.' I said, 'I have no reason to be angry at a child; this is what he got at home.' In his new group he kept looking at the previous group, because that's where all his friends were, and then he asked to go back. 'But I am an Arab,' I told him. And he said, 'So what? I want to be with my friends.'"

And in the meantime there is no end in sight to the conflict.

"I am not out to change the world or put an end to the conflict. I want to go through a process of building basic trust, building personal ties - and only afterward talk about the conflict. I hear about how they stay in touch afterward, too. Thanks to that, there is now a Jewish-Arab hiking group at the University of Haifa, a group of women who walk the Haifa boardwalk and a joint photography group."

'Best of two worlds'

Most of Haider's friends are Jews. Indeed, no Arabs - certainly no Arab women - have been involved in the projects in which she has been active. Not in volleyball, not in the tour-guide course and not in climbing cliffs, her new hobby. She lives on the border between two societies; she is considered an outsider in both, and yet doesn't really belong to either one.

How does one live with that?

"It was harder at first, but now I am able to enjoy the best of both worlds. At first I wanted to define my identity, but afterward I came to understand that it's a divided identity and that the only solution is to put on a different hat in each case. I am now getting more positive feedback from the Arab society than I used to. It was very hard at first. I was under greater pressure. But I too have matured and I don't let it get to me. People used to say to me, 'Enough, you have studied, traveled, accomplished things, what are you waiting for? Yallah, get married and have children.' Jews look at me in the same way; the two societies are equally conservative. Things were easier for me in the United States, because no one there took an interest in my private life. I met a lot of women like me there, who climb and don't ask questions."

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

"I won't be able to climb for many more years, but I can find a man anytime. So at the moment I am concentrating on my career. There are a few things that interest me, such as managing projects for the United Nations in a variety of fields. Until now, I haven't been able to make a proper living from what I did. Now I say enough. I need to find something that will provide for me big-time."