You’ll find her wherever the peacemakers and ecologists roam, at venues like the annual United Religions Initiative Middle East North Africa (MENA) region conference.
Today Ilana Muallem is one of the most remarkable “green” activists in the Middle East, inspiring, educating, promoting and drawing ecologically sound practices. In addition to leading EcoSpirit Middle East retreats in Jordan for young activists in the region, she is also currently in the process of creating an ecologically-built retreat, solar-powered of course, which will serve as a home and studio for young peacemakers from the Middle East region.
Thirty-two-year-old Meallem, a Londoner by birth, fell in love with Israel at an early age. She lived in the country for a year when she was two, and the memory somehow became a part of her identity. Raised in an orthodox family, her father was an Israeli-Egyptian who moved to the British city, and her mother, a British Jew. By the time she turned 18, the teenager was already working on enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces, strongly motivated to serve her new country.
When she said goodbye to her parents, two brothers and sister in England, en route to her new life in Israel, one brother’s parting words were: “Trust everyone.”
Carrying a gun looked sexy
When she first arrived in Israel, Meallem’s first goal was to serve in the army. “I knew that as a Jew coming from the outside I would receive help if I joined the army. It was obvious that I wanted to give back first. Joining the army was the best way to integrate into society – I was attracted to the idea of Israeli soldiers and guns. It looked exotic and sexy. Now I can’t believe I was excited by the idea of carrying a gun,” Meallem, today a fervent pacifist, tells ISRAEL21c.
Meallem went to work in reconnaissance and as a photographer. But the words of her brother left a lasting impression. Also fate would have its own agenda for this young traveler, always embarking on her trails with a mission.
Meallem’s list of achievements and travels over the past 14 years is packed with adventures: She has lived with a Bedouin family in the Negev desert, cracked down on dodgy eco-tourism practices in Brazil, taught Chinese villagers and Israeli villagers how to make biogas from animal waste, and now leads the week long EcoSpirit workshops in Jordan.
Meallem, who speaks fluent Arabic, is always smiling and good-natured. Her exotic scarves and turquoise jewelry combine with her appearance to make hear look like someone out of an Eastern fairytale. Whenever possible, she sleeps on the roof of her self-contained van-home, usually stationed in the Dead Sea region – a convenient meeting place for Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers.
A retreat on neutral territory
The new ecologically-built retreat she is working on will be based in neutral territory in the West Bank area, in a location which is accessible to both Palestinians and Israelis. Given the political complications, it is actually quite rare and difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to meet, she says.
Aside from the retreats, Meallem also holds a job with the Arava Institute, from which she graduated about six years ago.
She was interviewed on CNN about her experiences there. Today, she helps to keep the important environmental school’s alumnae connected to one another, whether they live in Israel, Jordan or the Palestinian Authority.
When she’s not pinned down to official duties, you might find Meallem anywhere. Her Facebook updates show her canoeing in the United States, or leading a peace ceremony somewhere in Sinai. “For me, when I say travel it’s not sitting on a beach in a hammock,” she admits.
“I do volunteer work wherever I am, with orphans in India to working in shanty towns in Chili. I volunteered to do marine research in Thailand and India. For me spiritual growth is intertwined with travel,” she explains. “When I am traveling on my own, nobody knows me and there are no expectations of how I should act. In this situation I throw myself into the hands of the universe. And miracles happen.”
(This post first appeared on ISRAEL21c – www.israel21c.org).