Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Op-ed in today's Christian Science Monitor

Hello all,

My op-ed entitled "So this is occupation" was published in today's Christian Science Monitor newspaper. Check it out:

It's a much shorter version than the blog I wrote on November 12 about the harrowing and trying experience of being denied entry back into the West Bank and then being essentially deported back to the US. For a former US official and as an American, that was hard to stomach.

I think it's a nice complement to the last of the 3-part series the Monitor ran on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Bravo to them for bringing attention to this important issue.

Here is the text of the op-ed:

So this is what occupation feels like

As an American, I took freedom of movement for granted. Not after Israel denied it to me.
By Janessa Gans

'So this is occupation,' I mused, staring down at the large DENIED ENTRY stamp on my passport.

The Israeli authorities were denying me entry into the West Bank. They gave no reason, but I had little doubt that Israel's Interior Ministry had learned of my enrollment at Birzeit University in the West Bank, where I had been studying Arabic since August. The university had warned me that Israel would not issue visas to international students for study in the West Bank, and students admitting that their destination was the West Bank would be denied entry.

The border crossing was a true "Aha" moment. It was the first time I felt the frustration of not having control over my life. As an American, I take freedom of movement for granted. Yet one of my country's closest allies was refusing me entry, not into its own land, but into a place where I was welcome. I heard many such stories during my time in the West Bank. My neighbor recounted his attempt to see his parents - a journey that required him to pass through an Israeli checkpoint.

"Where are you headed?" the guards demanded. "To [my family's village]," he answered.

"Where is that?"

"Near [a larger town]," he replied.

"And where is that?"

"In the north."

"And where is THAT?"

"In Palestine," he said.

"What did you say?" the guards bellowed. "This is Israel, not Palestine.... You're not getting through until you say, "In Israel." My neighbor never saw his family.

Israeli authorities maintain that checkpoints are essential security tools to keep would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from killing Israeli citizens. Yet this incident occurred at one of the many checkpoints located within and throughout the West Bank itself, not on the border with Israel. So, in telling these stories, Palestinians echoed a common refrain. "Are we terrorists? No! We're regular people wanting a normal life, wanting to see our families."

As a US official who liaisoned with Iraqi politicians in Baghdad for nearly two years after the US invasion, I had had my fill of complaints about the occupation. Many of us believed that our main problem was one of semantics. In May 2003, the US presence in Iraq officially became an "occupation," negating what we had earlier deemed "liberation." That stigma dogged us even after Iraqis gained sovereignty in June 2004, and I found myself dismissing the Iraqi leaders' references to occupation as demagoguery.

I also noted that Arab/Iraqi news programs regularly panned from American troops and tanks in Iraq to similar scenes of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories. There were other similarities: The checkpoints and barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank match the checkpoints and wall surrounding the highly fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

At the Israeli checkpoint, I experienced what occupation meant from the Arab perspective. It is not just semantics.

• To Arabs, "occupation" means that a foreign power is depriving Palestinians of basic freedoms.

• Through its unwavering support for Israel and its illegal (per UN resolutions) occupation, America is complicit in depriving Palestinians of freedoms its Declaration of Independence holds as "unalienable."

• In Iraq, the US use of the term "occupation" feeds Iraqi fears that the US presence is not about supporting human rights and democracy. Militants assert that the US intends to occupy and take over Arab lands.

For the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war are two sides of the same coin - and it's American credibility that's getting flipped.

President Carter has outlined a solution and the role America can play in it. In his new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Mr. Carter writes, "There will be no permanent or substantive peace as long as Israel is violating key UN resolutions, official American policy, and the international "road map" for peace by occupying Arab lands and oppressing the Palestinians." He adds, "American leaders must be in the forefront of this long-delayed just agreement that both sides can honor."

In playing such a vanguard role, America would not only do justice to the Palestinian people, it would take a stand for its core values - and take a giant leap in restoring its credibility within the Arab world.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Comments on Iraq Study Group report

I just finished reading the Iraq Study Group report, a little over 100 pages including appendices.

What a fabulous document--well-written, comprehensive, and wise. I liked it almost as much as George Packer's Assassin's Gate (a must read for anyone looking to get the real story on Iraq). I was at first perplexed by the lengthy account and detail in the first part of the report about the current situation in Iraq. "Don't Americans know this stuff already?" I thought to myself. Then, I realized that most Americans certainly do not know the real state of the situation over there, because so much of the news is politicized. If you watch FOX news, you would get the warm, fuzzy feeling that we're winning the war, apart from a few setbacks. Other news sources, on the other hand, portray only doom and gloom and focus just on numbers of troops and Iraqis killed. How appropriate, then, of the ISG to come out with a bi-partisan look at the situation, one that Americans can trust as a de-politicized assessment, or at least one in which political biases have cancelled each other out.

The following points of the report really resonated with my experience in Iraq and thoughts on the predicament.

1.) "There is no guarantee for success in Iraq." Page 1, line 1 of the assessment says it all. In fact, I'd take it a step farther and propound that we're almost guaranteed NOT to be successful in Iraq if we pursue the same muddled policy. (The report mentions why the current policy is muddled, such as military ineffectiveness and lack of reconstruction coordination.)

2.) Current military operations are to no end. The report reads, "US forces can 'clear' any neighborhood but there are neither enough US troops present nor enough support from Iraqi security forces to "hold" neighborhoods so cleared." We saw this so many times in Al Anbar province (Western Iraq). The Army and/or Marines would do a large sweeping operation and so-called "clear" areas of insurgents, but the insurgents always knew the operation was coming, would hide out or hole up for a few days, and then resurface once our military units were gone.

3.) Iraq must be regarded in the context of the broader Middle East conflict, and therefore, congruent efforts must be made on the Arab-Israeli issue. Time and time again, this was mentioned in conversations with Iraqi politicians and in my experience throughout the Middle East. (See a recent article on this topic in the Christian Science Monitor:

4.) Oil revenues and resources must be under the purview of the federal government rather than Iraq's various regions. (YES, YES, YES!) The outcry this recommendation caused among Iraq's powerful Kurdish and Shia blocs just shows how little they are committed to an Iraq that benefits all its citizens. This is the one measure, that if carried out in the way most powerful political players desire (i.e. Kurds and Shia), GUARANTEES the continuation of conflict and violence in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Sunnis, left in a region with no oil and no viable economy, will just be forever waging war on the other two regions in order to get some of the pie. Even more disastrously, the area, left on its own, without resources, and already home to a growing number of Sunni extremists, becomes fertile ground as a permanent terrorist safehaven.

5.) US diplomatic efforts in Iraq do not reflect the fact it is the US's highest foreign policy priority and critical to the future credibility and security of our nation. 33 out of 1,000 Embassy employees speak Arabic, states the report. That figure must include translators. There were only three Arabic speakers when I worked in the Embassy, plus the translators and some Arab-American contractors who worked in the Iraq Reconstruction and Management office. As one of those who did not speak a word of Arabic at the time, I know how hampering the language divide is. It required herculean efforts not to be in the dark about what was really going on inside government ministries, official statements and news, and biased who we would talk to (i.e. those who spoke English). Which brings me to the next point:

6.) ISG's key recommendation on US troops is to transition them out of Iraq by stepping up efforts to support, train, and equip Iraqi army and police. To accomplish this, the report calls for increased American troops as military advisors embedded in all the Iraqi units in the Army and police. I highly doubt that the US military has that number of translators who could work side by side with the military officers in these various units.

7.) The report puts forward a similar idea on training the Iraqi police. They call for more training of police units by civilians, who should be located side by side with Iraqis, even at police stations. Given the security environment, finding such individuals willing to take on those roles will be very difficult, if not impossible. If they do, it will come at great cost to the taxpayer to front the bill for the security teams to protect those US trainers. (For example, when I was planning to go to Baghdad last month, my security would have cost $85,000/month and that was only inside the green zone.)

More comments to come...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Finally-a good news story!

Sometimes I re-read these blogs and think they're all so depressing. I wonder how anyone can read such things without grabbing the box of tissues.

So, I'm very excited that I finally have a good news story to share. I decided what to do about the Palestinian gentleman. I saw him again and told him that if things did not improve in the very short-term, that I would buy him a bus ticket to Florida (where he had been before Washington and where he said he had been able to find work.) Tonight he was again at church and said that his whole outlook had changed in the past week. He felt a great sense of peace and joy despite still sleeping on the streets and had felt the presence of God with him. He no longer felt alone and had tremendous hope that his circumstances were already improving. I again offered to get him to Florida if he wanted and he hesitantly, but graciously accepted the offer. A friend and I went in on the ticket and some extra money to get him on his feet, some clothes and a backpack. His eyes were teeming with warmth and gratitude as he profusely thanked us for being his "brother". He also had already found a church of our denomination in Florida in the phone book and was looking forward to attending there and having a new "family" in Florida.

I drove home in an elated state. We all long to make a difference in other's lives and just to see the change in this man's disposition and the idea that I had helped in some way made me truly happy. It lends credence to a quote by Mary Baker Eddy, "Happiness is unselfish. It cannot exist alone, but requires all mankind to share it."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A new look at the homeless

A Palestinian Christian man came to our church service on Wednesday night in Georgetown. His name is Yusuf (Joseph in English) and he's from Bethlehem. He has been in the US for six months, has illegally stayed beyond his 3-month tourist visa. He is here trying to find work to support his family back home in Bethlehem, where he says the economic conditions are intolerable. I took him to lunch today and he proceeded to tell me more about his situation, only after a lot of prying on my part. He was more interested in hearing my thoughts on my experience in the West Bank, the Palestinian people and life, and politics there. Finally, I learned that he had not been able to find a job since he moved to Washington from Florida and had been sleeping on street corners. I gasped. "In the cold? Why can't you go to a shelter?" Yusuf said that shelters in DC document everyone who stays there and he is afraid of being sent back to the West Bank. I couldn't imagine that life there was worse than sleeping on the streets in Washington in the winter. At least he would have a roof over his head. But he said that his family was counting on him making some money and sending it home to them since none of them had been able to find work in Bethlehem for a long time.

He said the hardest part about his situation is that he was beginning to get dizzy spells and had even started talking to himself. "I feel invisble. No one talks to me; no one even looks at me." He said how difficult it was to be alone, especially since his culture is so social and it's very rare to spend any time alone.

I'm wrestling with what to do. This is the first homeless person I've ever gotten to know. I couldn't sleep at all last night thinking of him out there in the cold sleeping on a street corner. I've got to do something.

I was tellling a friend of his predicament last night and she mentioned that his same situation seems to be the same belief about Palestinians everywhere--homeless (stateless), poor, oppressed, wandering. I realized how true that was and immediately directed my prayers to see this man and this people that are God's children, just as we all are, the way God was seeing them--in the kingdom of heaven, never homeless or poor or oppressed. I have a ways to go to see it from this perspective but I'm working on it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Not Just the News

Well, I'm settling back into life here in the States. It was such an initial shock to be back home when I thought I would be gone for a year in the West Bank--only to return to Washington with no idea what my next step was. I had rented out my apartment; my things were in storage; I didn't know whether I should try to study Arabic somewhere else or stay in DC. It has felt a little like that period just after college when there are so many options on the table and you have no idea what to do with your life. Of course, there are always so many things to do and the problem for me was too many options and not a clear sense of the order in which to do them. So many times in our lives, we just need to know the very next step, not five steps down the road. And yet, I was not even sure of the next step.

Just last week, however, the clouds have started to lift. I've found a great job working on Iraq projects and issues for a consulting company. Since we have not found funding for our projects yet in The Euphrates Institute, it became apparent that I would have to find another job to sustain myself while TEI takes shape. I really love the team at the consulting company and I am so thrilled to be working with Iraqis again. And it is meaningful--dealing with women's and human rights issues in Iraq.

Despite being so far from the region now, I try to keep up all I can on the news and goings-on back there, both in Iraq and Israel/Palestine. I've talked with my former classmates back there and found out four more students from our program got denied on their attempts to re-enter into the West Bank. My Japanese roommate miraculously procured another three-month visa after coming in through Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. But she described her harrowing experience and told me she was lucky to be there. She endured five hours of questioning at the airport, during which they read her diary and looked at all the numbers on her phone. She lied to them (per our instructions) about living in the West Bank and they finally asked her, "why are you lying?" She said she was worried they wouldn't let her in. They told her that they probably would not and wanted to question her further.

Finally, after five hours, she told me she was feeling so ill and had a huge headache and asked them if she could see a doctor. It was at this point that they finally let her through. She reasoned she must have looked so pathetic and in need of medical attention.

I also talked to my neighbor, the same one I've written about in my blog several times. The last time, a week ago, I noticed something different about his voice and asked him what was wrong. He replied that he just returned home from being in the hospital for a few days and was still in pain and it hurt to talk.

"What happened," I exclaimed. "The hospital?"
"Yes, I was beaten by Israeli soldiers," he replied calmly.
"What?! Where, in Birzeit?" This was shocking news. I had only seen one convoy of Israeli soldiers pass by during my time there.
"Yes, right in Birzeit by the falafel shop we used to go to," he replied. He continued, his tone despondent. "I made the stupid mistake of going to get cigarettes for me and my roommates at 2 am (they always are up until 3) at that supermarket that's open late near the falafel place."

He said a couple humvees drove by and stopped next to him. "Where are you going? What are you doing out so late? the soldiers questioned angrily. My neighbor tried to explain.
"No, honestly, I'm just going to this store right there to get cigarettes and then I'm going back home."

"That's a lie. You must be causing trouble, " they said accusatorily. My neighbor said the five soldiers then jumped him and beat him--punching him, kicking him, until he laid on the ground, nearly unconscious. They then lifted him up and told him to hurry up and run home or else they would finish him off for good. So, he limped off as fast as he could home.

I was in tears by the end of the story, in shock that that could happen to him. He remained so calm and reminded me that it happens there all the time and that he was just kicking himself for going out at night, although he added that it didn't really matter because it could happen at any time of the day and even at his own house. (Israeli soldiers had several times searched the building and arrested people in the past.)

I asked him what his parents said about it and he said he hadn't told anyone except his best friend what had really happened because he didn't want his parents to find out and be very worried and sad about him.

To top it off, while I was on the phone with him and he was telling me this story, I heard his other phone ring. He answered it and I could hear him exclaiming, "Oh my God!" in the background. He got back on the phone and said he needed to go and would talk to me later. I asked why and he said that that was his good friend's Mother who had just called to tell him that his friend had just died--shot by Israelis at a checkpoint. Apparently, people were trying to get through but Israelis were closing the checkpoint and fired into the crowd and he was shot and killed. I knew his friend--a very nice guy that he works with in Ramallah.

"Hurry back, Janessa and come see me. I may be dead in a month too. Things are getting so bad."

This sounds unreal, doesn't it, like it's too awful to be true. Sadly, because I know the source, I know the verity of the tragedy, of the experiences. By the time I got off the phone with him, I was crying so hard. I had also talked that morning to a friend in Iraq--a student at Baghdad University who was describing to me the unbearable stench of the morgue on his way to school and the latest of his friends whose family members had been kidnapped. The civil war was in full force and terrifying. Then, I hear about what happens to my dear friend in Birzeit.

These are not just headlines on a newspaper to me--8 killed here; 2 killed there. These were real people that I knew and cared about--people who had gone out of their way to help me and that I had spent so many evenings with, eating, laughing, talking. It was overwhelming and I wasn't even the one experiencing it. I couldn't imagine how they felt right in the middle of it all--terribly real and terribly close.

I wonder if people would make decisions differently if we all had a human face to put on a situation--if things going on in the world, or our country or communities for that matter weren't just faceless "others" "out there", not people we count as different and therefore not worth our attention or care. if they were actual people like us that were deserving of the same rights and freedom. I don't know what I'm advocating here--I sound like a complete interventionist--saying we should go help the entire world, be the world's policeman. I'm not. I am just advocating that we act and see things in line with the American values that we hold so dear and for which our forefathers fought so courageously.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Are we as Americans supporting these inalienable rights for Palestinians, for Iraqis in our current policies? Are we willing to take a stand for it?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

I've read that the US is the only country in the world that celebrates a national day of Thanksgiving, apart from Canada, who later copied the US. I also belong to the only church I know of that has a Thanksgiving day service, in which members of the congregration can stand and testify to what they're grateful for. Thanksgiving has always been my Father's favorite holiday and since about college, it became mine too. It's a holiday that still retains a certain purity--somehow untainted by commercialism (if sullied a bit by football), and embodying such a high motive, that of gratitude.

One of my favorite parts of our church service has always been the reading of the Thanksgiving Day Presidential Proclamation. My brother over Thanksgiving dinner read the following Presidential Proclamation by Reagan in 1985, opining that the recent proclamations are "watered down". He had a point. I was shocked at the difference. Whether or not you agree with the religious message inherent in Reagan's, it is still just fascinating to see the change in our national discourse as reflected in the proclamations over the years. Read on below...

In any case, I wish you all the happiest of Thanksgivings and hope you have too many blessings to count in addition to blessings untold in the coming year. We do indeed have so much to be grateful for...

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation 1985

Date: November 15, 1985
By: Ronald Reagan

Although the time and date of the first American thanksgiving observance may be uncertain, there is no question but that this treasured custom derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage. "Unto Three, O God, do we give thanks," the Psalmist sang, praising God not only for the "wondrous works" of His creation, but for loving guidance and deliverance from dangers.

A band of settlers arriving in Maine in 1607 held a service of thanks for their safe journey, and twelve years later settlers in Virginia set aside a day of thanksgiving for their survival. In 1621 Governor William Bradford created the most famous of all such observances at Plymouth Colony when a bounteous harvest prompted him to proclaim a special day "to render thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings." The Spaniards in California and the Dutch in New Amsterdam also held services to give public thanks to God.

In 1777, during our War of Independence, the Continental Congress set aside a day for thanksgiving and praise for our victory at the battle of Saratoga. It was the first time all the colonies took part in such an event on the same day. The following year, upon news that France was coming to our aid, George Washington at Valley Forge prescribed a special day of thanksgiving. Later, as our first President, he responded to a Congressional petition by declaring Thursday, November 26, 1789, the first Thanksgiving Day of the United States of America.

Although there were many state and national thanksgiving days proclaimed in the ensuing years, it was the tireless crusade of one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, that finally led to the establishment of this beautiful feast as an annual nationwide observance. Her editorials so touched the heart of Abraham Lincoln that in 1863 - even in the midst of the civil War - he enjoined his countrymen to be mindful of their many blessings, cautioning them not to forget "the source from which they come," that they are "the gracious gifts of the Most High God…" who ought to be thanked "with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."

It is in that spirit that I now invite all Americans to take part again in this beautiful tradition with its roots deep in our history and deeper still in our hearts. We manifest our gratitude to God for the many blessings he has showered upon our land and upon its people.

In this season of Thanksgiving we are grateful for our abundant harvests and the productivity of our industries; for the discoveries of our laboratories; for the researches of our scientists and scholars; for the achievements of our artists, musicians, writers, clergy, teachers, physicians, businessmen, engineers, public servants, farmers, mechanics, artisans, and workers of every sort whose honest toil of mind and body in a free land rewards them and their families and enriches our entire Nation.

Let us thank God for our families, friends, and neighbors, and for the joy of this very festival we celebrate in His name. Let every house of worship in the land and every home and every heart be filled with the spirit of gratitude and praise and love on this Thanksgiving Day.

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, in the spirit and tradition of the Pilgrims, the Continental Congress, and past Presidents, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 28, 1985, as a day of national Thanksgiving. I call upon every citizen of this great Nation to gather together in homes and places of worship and offer prayers of praise and gratitude for the many blessings almighty God has bestowed upon our beloved country.

In Witness Where Of, I have here unto set my hand this fifteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-five, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and tenth.

Thanksgiving Day, 2006
A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America

Thanksgiving 2006

As Americans gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks for the many ways that our Nation and our people have been blessed.

The Thanksgiving tradition dates back to the earliest days of our society, celebrated in decisive moments in our history and in quiet times around family tables. Nearly four centuries have passed since early settlers gave thanks for their safe arrival and pilgrims enjoyed a harvest feast to thank God for allowing them to survive a harsh winter in the New World. General George Washington observed Thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War, and in his first proclamation after becoming President, he declared November 26, 1789, a national day of "thanksgiving and prayer." During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln revived the tradition of proclaiming a day of thanksgiving, reminding a divided Nation of its founding ideals.

At this time of great promise for America, we are grateful for the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and defended by our Armed Forces throughout the generations. Today, many of these courageous men and women are securing our peace in places far from home, and we pay tribute to them and to their families for their service, sacrifice, and strength. We also honor the families of the fallen and lift them up in our prayers.

Our citizens are privileged to live in the world's freest country, where the hope of the American dream is within the reach of every person. Americans share a desire to answer the universal call to serve something greater than ourselves, and we see this spirit every day in the millions of volunteers throughout our country who bring hope and healing to those in need. On this Thanksgiving Day, and throughout the year, let us show our gratitude for the blessings of freedom, family, and faith, and may God continue to bless America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 23, 2006, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage all Americans to gather together in their homes and places of worship with family, friends, and loved ones to reinforce the ties that bind us and give thanks for the freedoms and many blessings we enjoy.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Born in the USA

Well, although it was the first (and hopefully the last) time I have ever returned home against my will, it still feels good to be here. I returned to Washington, DC last week amidst the fall palette of orange, red, and yellow colors topped off with 70 degree Indian summer weather. It softened the slight humiliation of coming back 10 months earlier than I had anticipated. It's a little like getting divorced right after your wedding. Well, I imagine it's kind of like that.

On the plane ride home, I watched the movie "Peaceful Warrior" three times. It's a great movie based on the book by Dan Millman entitled "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior". Perhapd three times in a row is excessive but it got me through what was a low point for me. I felt like I had been ripped out of an environment in which I was thriving, happy, learning and loving every moment. The main premise of the movie was similar. This Olympic-quality gymnast gets in a motorcycle accident right before the trials and shatters his leg and is told he may never walk again, let alone compete. Rather than asking, "why did this happen?" he decides to let go of all ego and starts training again, little by little, and eventually reaches to a level higher than he was before. And in just 10 months.

Anyway, the main premise really hit home for me. At this point, I can mope around and question why this happened to me or I can continue to do what I love even if it's harder now. Am thinking of the best way to do that...I think turkey and stuffing will get the creative juices flowing. :-)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Deported--well, practically

I’m still somewhat in a daze. One minute I was daydreaming of sleeping in my bed in the West Bank after a week of vacation in Jordan, and the next I was staring at a denied entry stamp on my passport. A few days later, I was gazing out the window of an airplane headed back to the States wondering if I would ever be allowed back in Israel (or the West Bank) again.

What did I do to deserve this treatment?

I was a foreigner living in the West Bank, and (heaven forbid!), studying Arabic there.

Yes, I'm having difficulty hiding the sarcasm or muting the sense of outrage I have at basically being deported from the country that we bankroll. There's only one minor makes for good story-telling, i.e. how many people do you know who have been deported from a country...??

So, here's the story...

I showed up at noon at the checkpoint into Israel on Tuesday, October 31st. My friends who work at the US Embassy in Jordan and I were joking about how since it was Halloween and all, I should dress up as a suicide bomber, and then just say, "Ha ha, it's just my Halloween costume! Happy Halloween!" Considering what happened later, it's a good thing we thought better of it.

I was so excited to go back home after a long Eid holiday and a fabulous trip to Jordan. And to be honest, I wasn’t too worried about getting back in. After all, I still had a month left on my visa and I had a great alibi—that
I was helping with a conflict resolution organization based outside of Tel Aviv and run by a Jewish American. This was true and the director of the organization was extremely well-connected and ready to talk to them about me if needed. I figured that they would hear that and have no problems--after all, the org. was in Israel and the director was Jewish.

So, I got up to the counter and the two female soldiers ask me if it’s my first time traveling to Israel. I said No. They asked when and for how long had I been before. I said just the past two months I’d been there as a tourist and also helping out with this organization. I hoped to get a job with them and stay longer in Israel. They asked all sorts of questions about where I’d been staying, to which I answered in hostels and with various friends. They asked if I planned to go anywhere besides Israel. I said I wanted to stay where it was safe. (Not a lie since I consider the West Bank very safe.) They asked all about the organization and for the details. Then I was told to have a seat and they disappeared behind closed doors with my passport.

They returned after an hour or so and asked me more questions about what I intended to do with this organization and how long I planned to stay in Israel, and how I had been paying for my stay. I said I used to work for the US government and that I had saved up money. They disappeared again and after another hour of waiting and trying to keep a calm thought I was finally summoned in to the back room and was told that the Ministry of Interior had denied my request to enter Israel and I would have to go back to Jordan.

I looked at them in pure shock. “Excuse me? How could this be? What is the reason?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ll have to take it up with the Ministry of Interior. We’re just the border police. We don't know the reason.”

"What?!!", I yelled, my voice shaking. "You have to give me a reason. This is outrageous!"

Still a completely impassive response. Then I pulled out the big guns... "Do you know I used to work for the US government? This is an insult—as a former diplomat and as an American who basically bankrolls your country, this is totally uncalled for! I'm going to call everyone I know and you're going to be in big trouble," I screamed, trying to hold back the tears.

"Go ahead and do that," said the lady behind the desk, entirely uncompassionate and unfeeling. “Sorry, you must leave right now.” I choked out “This is unbelievable” and slammed the door behind me. I tried to hold back the tears as I was escorted to get my bag in front of a line of people waiting to get in to Israel and who all stared at me curiously, obviously wondering why on earth I had gotten denied.

Outside as I was waiting for the bus to take me back to Jordan, I called the director of the organization where I had volunteered and told her what had happened. Her first words were, "Don't cry, we'll get you out of this." Just hearing that comforting statement made the lump rise in my throat and made me want to cry all the more but I forced the tears back.
She immediately started making phone calls to Israeli officials she knew. She also happened to be sitting with officials of the foreign ministry at that moment. I saw a glimmer of hope.

A couple hours went by and still no progress. The Director said that the Foreign Ministry was working hard with her to persuade the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to let me in but they were not budging. She was confident it would be resolved but maybe not until the next day since the checkpoint would soon be closed. I might have to go back to Amman and try the next day. I sighed, still in shock that this was happening. I waited another hour on the bus, during which a group of 8 Spaniards boarded. I wondered what their story was but was too tired and pissed off to make conversation.

Finally back on the Jordanian side of the border, the officials there recognized me and wondered what had happened. “Why did they deny you?” “No idea,” I replied, saying that they hadn’t given me any reason. I added that I would be back the next day to try again, at which they looked surprisingly and sadly at me. "That never works; once they deny you, you won't get in again."

"Well, I’m going to try anyway," I responded.

“As you like, but know you’re always welcome here in Jordan,” they said kindly.

That was somehow comforting to know that at least one country wanted me. I also mentioned to them that I was especially shocked since I used to work for the US government. They mentioned there was a US official outside right then from the US consulate in Jerusalem and that maybe he would help me. I rushed outside in the hopes that maybe I knew him. He was in the typical US Embassy armored suburban and looked pretty reluctant to roll down his window to this random woman knocking at his door. He eventually opened up and I proceeded to tell him the story, dropping names of people I knew in the consulate. He calmly replied there was nothing he could do. I thanked him and walked back in to the building back to the counter to fill out the paperwork once again. The driver of the US diplomat asked how I was getting back to Amman and I replied that I had no idea. He offered to give me a ride if I could wait a while. I said of course and thanked him profusely. I then walked outside as the first tears of the day overwhelmed me. I felt so deserted by the two countries that the world associated me with, the US and by extension, Israel. And here were Arabs, those people who are supposed to hate us, taking me in and going out of their way for me. Why was my world so upside down?

I was so exhausted by the time we got in the armored suburban I fell asleep right away. The day of tears of frustration and fear had gotten to me. I showed up in Amman 45 minutes later back to my friend's house and we started calling Embassy officials in Jerusalem to tell them the story and get advice on what to do. One official said this had been and continues to be a big problem with Americans getting denied entry and they have been tracking cases and bringing the issue up in general with the Israeli MoI and officials. They said they would raise my issue as well the next day with the MOI.

The org. director also had insights. Through her contacts, she had learned that they had been suspicious of me at the border because I had said I was both a tourist but also working. However, she said the main problem was that I was studying in the West Bank and somehow they had known this. They wondered what exactly I was doing in the West Bank and why I was there. They secretly suspected I worked for the International Solidarity Movement, the militant, left-wing organization that sponsors protests against the wall and blocking bulldozers tearing down Palestinian homes and the like. (I later heard from a friend that they suspect any foreigner who lives in the West Bank of working for them. But I still couldn't believe they made a stretch from former US official to crazed bulldozer-blocker. "Anyway, not to worry," she continued. "Tomorrow we will take care of it."

It felt like groundhog day as I once again the next day took the same half hour cab ride to the bus station, waited for passenges to fill it up, drove the hour and a half to the border, paid another exit visa from Jordan, and waited the hour for the bus to take us to the Israeli side. My stomach was in knots the entire time as I tried to remain calm and tell myself that today was a new day and that I could expect wonderful things.

As I got in line at the window, I noticed with glee that the girl behind the counter was different. She was much nicer too and asked the same usual questions but with a smile on her face. She then thumbed threw my passport, frowned at the denied entry stamp and told me to have a seat while she went to talk to her colleagues in the back room. My heart sank. "Oh no, here we go again."

A gentleman from behind those ominous-looking secret doors came out to talk to me after a while. I said, "Look, I have a plane ticket going home November 15th. All my things are in Israel. Please just let me in to get my things and if it doesn't work out to work full-time at the organization, I'll fly home."

To my surprise he was very friendly but he shook his head sadly. "I'll talk to the MOI again, but I don't think they will let you in." I called the director again and gave her an update. She said she and her contacts in the Foreign Ministry had been trying all morning to persuade the MoI and they were all outraged at how obstinate MoI was being. The FM had even suggested to the director that she go on television with the story to show MoI how serious this was and upset they were. Thankfully, she told them that this kind of press was not what I was after and wouldn't necessarily help my case.

I told her I would get in touch when I got the final word. After another hour or so, another gentleman came out of the doors with two passports--mine and that of a Palestinian-American. Both "Entry Denied". He repeated the same spiel I had heard the other night and ushered us directly to the bus going back to Jordan. All the while, tears were streaming down my cheeks as I thought of my predicament and the injustice of it all. Mid-sememster into the program at Birzeit; all my things there; all my rent paid; my plane ticket out of there...but most of all, my life was there--my neighbors, my roommate, my community, Arabic, my life!

I sat down on the pavement, called my roommate in Palestine, and cried.

After a few hours of waiting for the bus to go back to Jordan, I finally got a hold of the director again and told her the situation. She sighed and said, "Okay, I've had the phone number of the number 2 in the MoI but have hesitated to use it. I didn't want to make it even worse by troubling the head honchos about you. But, at this point, it couldn't get any worse! Let's do it."

Five minutes later, the director called back. Her instructions were straight out of a thriller movie. "Janessa, listen carefully. I want you to get your bag and get off the bus right now and walk into the checkpoint. They're expecting you. Go right now before they close!" She explained she could only get me a week, but that was better than nothing.

I told the bus driver I had to get off the bus and while he protested, I ignored him, grabbed my bag, and ran to the guard in front of the checkpoint. I said, "I have to go inside. They're letting me in to Israel." The guard frowned at me and looked exasperated. By this point, he'd been dealing with my hell-raising for two days straight and he thought this was just the latest antic. "Listen," I said, "Just take the phone and listen." He finally agreed and I handed him the phone so the director could tell him what was going on. After a few seconds, he straightened up and started nodding vigorously. He hung up, handed me the phone, and immediately radioed something in Hebrew to someone. Five seconds later, an official from inside came out and escorted me to the back room inside the building. This time, they were courteous and nice. Ten minutes later, I had an Israeli visa stamped in my passport and I was walking through the gates to the Israeli side. The security people looked in astonishment at me walking through with a huge smile on my face.

"They let you in?? Congratulations!," said one guard.

"Thanks," I replied. "I guess miracles do happen!"

On the other side, I got on a bus to Jericho, hoping to find a cheaper taxi from there. I met a Palestinian-American on the bus who had also been put through the ringer in trying to get in to Israel. He was 21 and was coming to check out Birzeit University. (Of course he didn't tell the border guards that.) He was from Texas and hated the Middle East, he said, but his Dad was forcing him to finish college in the Middle East so he could learn Arabic. He had just gotten out of three weeks in a Jordanian prison for being caught with marijuana and was bitter. I chatted with him a bit about Birzeit but mainly daydreamed about surprising my roommate and neighbors, whom I had just told I was denied entry once again. They had no idea the decision had been so suddenly reversed.

Two hours later, I was finally at home, knocking on my front door, and hugging my roommate who started crying and screaming when she saw me. I had to explain to everyone not to get too excited since I only had a week and then had to leave. It was so bittersweet. I went to school the next day and explained what had happened to the program officials. They sadly shook their head and said there was nothing they could do. "This is why we told all of you students never to say a word about the West Bank and Birzeit. They do not want any foreigners here witnessing their occupation and the situation here." Well, I was really beginning to believe that was true. They don't give out visas to students wanting to study in the West Bank and even journalists we'd met had had to lie and say they had no intention of coming to the West Bank. Most NGO professionals also had to stay in country on tourist visas since work permits are nearly impossible to get if you're working in the West Bank. So, everyone lives in this perennial fear of every three months having to leave the country and praying you can get back in. Since I was the first of my class to leave and get denied, now all my fellow students were agonizing about what their fate would be. They concluded that if I, an American and former official, was turned away, then they were basically goners.

My plan was first to go to Jordan and wait for a work visa from there, but the director of the organization said the MoI was mandating that I go back to the States and apply from there. If I did not, she would be in trouble and I would never be allowed back in the country again. They were waiting for me at the airport, she said, and my name was on a checklist showing if I left from there or not. "So, does this mean I'm effectively being deported? Am I on some blacklist? Am I in deep trouble?" "Not yet," she said. "You won't be if you go home."

The next few days were filled with bouts of tears, last-minute purchases of Palestinian knick-knacks, a visit to Arafat's tomb (the only tourist destination in Ramallah), and a rousing going away party. I told everyone I hoped to be back in a month but secretly I had a nagging feeling I may never be back to study there again. This is what made it so hard to leave--I had this suspicion this wonderful experience was over for good. What had I learned? Was it enough? What would I miss out on? Just over two months just didn't seem enough...there was so much more I felt I needed to experience and learn. Oh well, I would have to trust that there was a bigger plan of which I was not aware.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A looooooong Day

Life in the big city again!

The lights, tall buildings, malls, (Mecca Mall is a popular mall here in Amman), McDonalds of course, and even Starbucks. I'm feeling civilized; it's great to be back in Amman. The last time I was here was on my way home from Baghdad in July 2005, but it doesn't feel like much time has passed at all.

Getting here from the West Bank was an experience in itself. I left my house in Birzeit at 7:45 am on the 24th with no clue how I would actually get to Amman. I knew that since I didn't have a Jordanian visa I couldn't go through the border crossing that was closest to the West Bank (King Hussein bridge) and instead had to go to one of the "real" border crossings between Israel and Jordan. But I didn't know how I would do that.

I started with the bus (servees) to Ramallah. In Ramallah, I started walking to the bus station in Ramallah to go to Jerusalem, thinking that it would be easier to find a bus to the North from there and stopped to ask a taxi driver what he thought. The taxi driver said there are no direct buses from Jerusalem to the border crossing and that the best way was to go by private taxi. (hmm, not surprising...this option would certainly be better for him!) Despite his ulterior motives, I happened to agree with him that taking the bus into Jerusalem (which was actually going the wrong direction from where I needed to go), hoping that there was some kind of bus, and if not, paying the much more expensive Israeli taxi fare was more than I wanted to deal with that morning. So, I agreed to pay him the 200 shekels to drive me North and we set off. It ended up being much longer than I thought, maybe an hour and a half of driving, winding down towards Jericho and the Dead Sea and then through picturesque valleys with mountains rising on all sides...desert mountains with very little foliage, but mountains nevertheless. I pretended like I was napping most of the time to fend off the driver's flirtations (despite his having a wife and three kids), and enjoyed the long, windy drive North. After a while, we stopped at an Israeli checkpoint and my driver said, "Okay, they'll take care of you from here. I can't go any farther," took out my backpack, and showed me the door. "Excuse me? Who will take care of me? Where are we?" It turns out we were about 30 miles from the Shaykh Hussein border crossing, but because the rest of the way happened to be in Israel, not the West Bank, he had to turn back at the checkpoint. So, I got out, walked through the checkpoint, and asked the Israeli guards what I should do. "Well, you can wait for a taxi to take you to the nearest town, Beet Sha'anan, but just so you know, there probably won't be any." "Ah," I replied. "So what should I do?" They just shrugged. So, I took my stuff over to the side of the road and sat down to think. It was 9:30 am and there were no cars at all coming and I still had so much of my journey left to go!

After about ten minutes, a pick-up truck drove through and as the guards were searching it, one of them ran over to me, double-checked my passport, and said, "Do you want to go with this guy? He's driving to the next town." I didn't hesitate, mainly glad to get somewhere besides the checkpoint and just slightly bemused at the idea of my first experience hitch-hiking being in the hinterlands of Israel. I climbed in next to a guy who looked like the Israeli equivalent to a farmer on the backroads of Idaho, with his pick-up truck, country-western style music in Hebrew blaring, and tanned arms and face. He spoke only a few English words so we rode along listening to the Hebrew country music and enjoyed the scenery. At the next town, he dropped me off at a somewhat-central looking square and I thanked him profusely. I went into a falafel stand and asked them if they had any idea about how to get to the Shaykh Hussein border crossing, at this point only 5 miles away. You would have thought I was asking how to get to Mars. Finally, the woman agreed to call me a taxi and I could ask him. Twenty minutes later, the taxi drive pulled up and agreed to take me for 30 shekels, about 7 dollars. I tried haggling with him, but I think he knew the options were clearly limited, so he didn't budge. 5 minutes later, I was at the border and walked towards a tall, airport-looking building that was the Israeli immigration side. I elbowed my way to the counter after about 30 minutes (no such thing as a line of course) and paid the $25 dollar exit tax.

Then, I left the building and got onto a special bus that you have to pay another dollar to take you to the Jordanian side of the immigration. Little did I know what i was in for!! the Jordanian building was so packed with people you could barely walk in it. I shoved my way over towards the mob assembled in front of the visa counters and my heart sank. There was a huge mass of men (only two women that I could see) pushing and screaming and shoving to get the attention of the people at the two visa counters. It was INSANE. The only other time I've seen a crowd like that was in Gambia, West Africa trying to get into a Youssou N'Dour concert, and at which I was nearly stampeded to death. I had hands down my pants, up my shirt, my money stolen, was on the ground at one point with people stepping on me, and then to top it off, was clubbed on the head by a policeman who was beating back the crowd and didn't see the lone, poor, American woman in the midst of it.

As that memory came flooding back to me, I entered the foray with some trepidation. After a good twenty minutes with absolutely no progress or movement forward, (in fact, I think I was pushed backwards), I went over to a policeman who was trying to get some control over the mob and asked if he had any suggestions for what I could do to get a visa. No, he had not. Hmmm,so I tried again and this time made it slightly closer to the front and then realized that the 30 or so people in front of me each had stacks of about 10 passports. I realized it was a hopeless cause and looked in desperation at a guy who was very close to the front and who was already holding a stack of 10. I sized him up quickly, trying to decide if he looked the type to make off with my passport if I gave it to him. I decided he looked okay. "Can I give mine to you too?" I asked. "No problem," he answered. I gratefully elbowed my way out of line and sat on the outskirts to wait...and wait...and wait.

It took at least another hour for him to get to the front and for them to process the 22 visas that he had accumulated by the time he got up there. By the time he got out, he was drenched in sweat and downed an entire bottle of water in one gulp that his wife handed him. I started chatting with his wife and playing with their child while we were waiting in yet another line to get an entry stamp now that we had the visas. It turns out they were Israei Arabs living near Haifa and were going to Jordan on vacation for the Eid holiday. The wife wore a headscarf, but was dressed up in jewelry and high heels. She was about to turn 23 and had been married for three years already. (Seriously, I'm starting to get an old maid complex!) While waiting in line, they asked me how I was getting to Amman. I replied that I had no idea; I figured I would catch a bus or get a servees. They insisted that I ride with them since they were driving and had an extra spot in their car.

So, the adventure continued...waiting in yet another line to get the car through another processing line, in which they charge you an exorbitant $100 and make you switch the plates from Israeli to Jordanian. Finally, we started off for the 2 hour drive down to Amman. A very friendly couple, we chatted about life in Israel for them and they wanted to hear all about life in the West Bank, since they had only been there a few times. (They said it was too dangerous for them to go. Huh?) The wife cleared up for me the situation about the school segregration. (Recall my confusion in an earlier blog.) Yes, indeed, they are all separated between Jews and Arabs, but Arabs are taught Hebrew in school along with Arabic. However, Jews are not taught Arabic. Hence, the reason why all Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew.

All the time chatting, I was of course riding in the back seat with their 2 and a half year old who did not have a car seat and was climbing all over me and beating me over the head once in a while. Maybe he was excited because they had given him nothing but coke and candy to eat in the two hours I had been with them. They also regularly played a song he liked at crushing decibels and he would dance to it. I literally had to plug my ears it was so loud; I can't imagine what the volume was doing to the little guy's ears! The worst part is they would open the sunroof and he would climb up on the middle console and stick his head out the top and dance. They would laugh and say, "Isn't this great? This is illegal to do in Israel, but here there's no problem!" "Riiight," I thought, no problem when the Dad is driving 80 mph in his Mercedes on windy roads passing trucks and cars on hairpin turns. So, so much for car and child safety.

Then, there was a not so delightful temper tantrum, during which I was kicked many more times. I'll spare you the details. The experience proved to be interesting in a later conversation with my American friend in Amman whose background is in childhood development. She was lamenting how little Arab parents know about disciplining kids properly--the children (especially middle to upper class) are generally quite spoiled and that the main way parents in Jordan know to discipline their kids is through hitting.

Finally, we made it to Amman and they wanted to head straight to McDonalds. I never eat McDonalds in a foreign country, but I figured since I was with an Arab family, it was more forgivable. We were probably quite a sight sitting there together eating our Big Macs, but I've certainly been in stranger situations.

I finally made it to my friends' house at around 6:30 pm (nearly 11 hours after leaving), friends of mine from Principia College who are posted in Amman for three years at the Embassy. I reveled in a yummy dinner including sweet potatoes (yum!), a comfortable bed, real American cereal, a washer AND drier, and a shower with water pressure. Life is good in civilization!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Happy Eid!

Phew, what a day, the first day of the Eid holiday. The moon was apparently seen last night so Ramadan is officially over! It's been very exciting and festive around here--much like Christmas. For days the streets of Ramallah have become like a fair with shops in the streets selling gifts and jam-packed with people doing last minute shopping for their families. Kids especially all get new clothes and toys just like Christmas back home. Since last night, the kids in my neighborhood have been setting off fireworks, surprisingly good ones with colors and sparkles.

Today, the boys have been wreaking havoc in the neighborhood with their toy guns they bought with their Eid money. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else. Boys here are obssessed with guns and they all look eerily real--AKs, M-4s, handguns. I noticed on the wrapping of one of them..."Use not advised for children under the age of 18. Never shoot at humans or animals." I burst out laughing--they ONLY shoot them at people and animals and the average age of kids playing with them is 7. The gun obssession must have something to do with the occupation culture. An hour ago, there was a knock at the door. Per usual, I yelled out, "Tafaddal!" (Welcome, come in!) No answer. I yelled again, but no answer, so I finally went and opened the door. I jumped at the sight of a red laser beam on my forehead and the blue light of the scope light of the machine gun and a kid in camouflage. "I'm the Israeli army! I got you!", the kid yelled and laughed, who I recognized as my neighbor across the street. Jeez, talk about a near heart attack! See my picture with the culprit...

The girls are much more sedated than the boys and have been all dressed up in their Eid finest. We just got back from being invited over to our neighbors and I was woefully undressed as they were done up in sparkles and high heels and the works. Now my belly is full from all the sweets and tea and fruit.

We have a week vacation from school and I am headed to Amman to visit some friends who work at the US Embassy there as well as some Iraqi friends of mine who will be there for their Eid vacation.

Eid Mubarak to you all and be in touch soon!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Birzeit On Top of the World

My roommate and I have found that after the big huge Iftar meal (the breaking of the fast) at 5pm, we need to walk it off a bit or else we are in pain all evening. So, we've started exploring different routes around town. Birzeit has been deserted the past couple of days since the Eid holiday started. (For the University, it started Friday.) Everyone has gone off to their respective villages to be with their families. It is very quiet--very nice, actually.

Anyway, tonight we went for a long walk with another friend of ours from Denmark and saw an Israeli checkpoint in the distance. We decided we would go test whether they would let us walk through it. It was pitch dark and there was a line of cars waiting. Suddently a huge spotlight shone on us and we stopped in our tracks. I thought of how in Iraq, to move at the checkpoint at the wrong time, meant warning shots fired eerily close to the vehicle. I said we should stay put. Thankfully, after a moment, a soldier beckoned us forward. I realized we must have been quite a sight--a Japanese, an American, and a Dane walking around the country hillsides of the West Bank in the dark.

"What are you doing here?" they asked.
"We're going for a walk," we answered as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Is it okay if we pass?"
"You're doing what? Where are you from? Where do you live?" "How long have you been here?"

After we answered all their questions, they looked at each other incredulously and talked to each other in Hebrew. After a while, they muttered, "Fine, go ahead." We smiled at each other and walked off into the night, giggling and laughing at what they must have thought of us and how happy we were to have gotten through. We walked for another 20 minutes to the next Palestinian town, all the way with the spotlight on us. We couldn't figure out if that was a helpful gesture to light our path in the black night or if they wanted to keep on eye on these subversive foreigners.

On our way back, we had hoped to talk to the soldiers and find out where they were from, what they thought about things, but they were busy with a line of cars so we just walked through and went on our merry way. Seeing those young guys made me think of a guy I met playing ultimate frisbee in Tel Aviv who had also been stationed in Birzeit during his 3-year obligatory military service. He had told me of how 3 guys in the company next to theirs were killed in the hills outside Birzeit by a sniper, who they couldn't catch for a long time since the hills made the shots echo and they couldn't tell where it was coming from. I told him how I had been told the exact same story by a Palestinian living in Birzeit. The ultimate guy said, "Yeah, and I bet he told you the story with a smile on his face." "Yeah", I replied, "actually he did."

The view at night from Birzeit and these walks is so beautiful. Birzeit is set on a hilltop and one can see so far--the lights of Tel Aviv to the West, framed by rising hilltops with twinkling lights upon them. One can always tell the difference between the lights of settlements and Palestinian villages--the settlements are more lit up and the lights are arranged in an orderly, block-like pattern. The villages are more spread out with hap-hazard lights. I love to walk around here--the sights of the olive trees lining each hill, the old rock fences, walking by modern-day shepherds with their goats, kids riding donkeys and horses around. I feel always that I am back in a distant time. I love to imagine Jesus and the prophets making their way across this same land, sitting on these various "mounts of olives". Just one of the perks of studying Arabic here in the holy land...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

No need for Arab Justice after all...

I realize I haven't written the follow-up to my story about the guy who harrassed me on the street and inquiring minds want to know! Well, there's not much to report. I haven't been followed at all since that one time, but then again, I've hurried home before dark. My neighbor asked me about it a couple days ago and I told him nothing had happened since the one time. He nodded knowingly, saying that he "had taken care of it". When I asked him what that meant, he said he had talked to most of the neighbors about the incident and made sure everyone was watching out for any unseemly behavior, conducting a "neighborhood watch" of sorts, I suppose.

By the way, I have to share my neighbor's story, another interesting perspective. He (Nahel) is 28, owns and works in the supermarket across the street, and has three university degrees in Business, Philosophy, and Religion, from Birzeit University. He lives in the apartment directly above us with his brother, best friend, and three other guys who attend Birzeit. That's 6 people in the same amount of space we have for half the number! Anyway, in this society he is considered very old not to be married, but has never had a girlfriend or has found someone he's interested in. (I always joke that at 30, I'm considered a grandma! They never disagree with me... :-(

Nahel has had a plethora of experiences: he used to model for fashion shows (yes, I've seen the pictures!), he was in the Palestinian special forces, and also used to work in Tel Aviv when Palestinians were still allowed to go there. He's very good-looking, but smoking, lack of exercise, sleep, and stress, are taking their toll--as evidenced by circles and a paunch. As the oldest child in his family, he has five younger brothers and two sisters. The entire family depends on him for their income. The Father is sick and can't work and none of the other siblings is able to find work. This means they are in dire straits, as Nahel's tiny market is not making money. Ideally located next to a school, it usually generates a lot of business, but school has not been in session since before the summer because of the strike, so business is down to a minimum. Nahel has another job working as a computer programmer for the government in Ramallah, but has not been paid there in 9 months.

Anyway, last night we were joking about putting his roommate in solitary confinement because he was being a jerk and Nahel proceeded to tell some stories of his experiences in jail. He's been in five times, all for random things. (He's also been shot by IDF in the shoulder.) For example, once he was going through a checkpoint, and they asked him, "Where are you from?" And he said the name of his village. They asked, "where's that?" He said it was near the name of this other town. They said, "Where's that?" And he answered, "In Palestine." The guards were incensed at this response and said, "Take it back! This is not Palestine; this is Israel. Say, we are in Israel!" Nahel refused so they carted him off to jail.

One of those five times, they placed him in solitary confinement for 12 days and made him sit on a tiny chair that sloped forward, which forced you to lean over the whole time. His hands were tied behind his back. He could not fall asleep or he would fall over. He was fed by hand twice a day and allowed to go to the bathroom also twice a day, and other than that, he had to stay in the same position for 12 days. They regularly beat him in prison and questioned him heavily as to who his friends were, what he did, what he thought about Israel, Jews, etc.

I found it so shocking that this easy-going, friendly, intelligent, normal guy had been through these experiences, shot, imprisoned, tortured. You would never guess watching him and his friends joke around, watch TV, hang out. His thoughts about Israeli policy and the occupation only come out when he is sharing his experiences. He actually has many Jewish friends and bemoans the fact he can no longer go to Israel. He has said that it doesn't really matter what the Israeli troops think of him or what they do to him because he lives with the deep knowledge that he is in the right, that he is the one who was wronged, and that he has done nothing wrong.

I can't really grasp what I would think of justice if I were Palestinian and how I would reconcile the apparent complete lack of it. I mean, you are aware of this standard of human rights and know what justice is and believe in God and that God is good. And yet, you have none of that. They try to say they are unique in the world in that sense, the only people living under occupation for this period of time, but yet there are people all over the world deprived of human rights, freedom, and justice. It's not a unique problem; it's just a problem that is for some reason ignored, not understood, or viewed as "necessary" by the US and the West. That's what makes it unique to me, that we are supporting its existence, whereas elsewhere we condemn it.

Arabic class or political commentary?

As many of you know, I'm taking three classes at Birzeit University...

Modern Standard Arabic
Palestinian Dialect
The Palestine Question.

The Palestine Question is taught in English, contains mainly foreign students but a few Palestinians, and is a historical and contemporary review of the events of the region, from the Ottoman Empire leading up to the creation of the state of Israel, and the current problems. The teacher, Sa'ad Nimr, is one of the top political advisors to Fatah political party and also spent eight years in Israeli jails as a political prisoner. Very fascinating and brilliant guy--Ph.D. from some prominent University, don't remember where. He asks provocative questions like "why aren't Arab countries democratic? Why did Jews in Israel develop economically much quicker than Arabs?" He's very secular, progressive, and abhors the trend towards Islamization in Palestine and the Arab world.

My teacher for the Arabic classes is a real piece of work. In the dialect class, he is much more relaxed and loves to make a fool of himself and make everyone laugh by emphasizing how to pronounce words to a ridiculous extent. Then, he makes everyone repeat him over and over. For a week straight, for example, he made us say, "Eey wah, wadhih!" (Yes, it's clear!) at least 15 times per class. I started dreaming about this phrase! And we couldn't just repeat it, we had to shout it and he would shout it and pound the table. In fact, the teacher, (Sami) shouts everything, which can be quite painful when he happens to be standing behind you.

The dialect class has about 10 people, an interesting range of folks. We have two Frenchies, one Swede, three Koreans, three Americans, one Dane, and a German.

The Frenchies (I can call them that; I used to live there!) are a guy and a girl: one works in Jerusalem, speaks fluent Hebrew and is learning Arabic just for fun. The other is dedicated to the Palestinian cause--boycotts all Israeli products and does not want to spend any money in Israel. He volunteers for an organization called Check out the maps on their website--the presentation they gave at our school is chilling.

The Swede is a journalist for a small trade union newspaper; the Koreans work for a social welfare organization in Jerusalem; the Dane also helps stopthewall and is here to learn Arabic. The German has family here (not sure how that works; he couldn't be more Aryan looking!) and is learning Arabic.

The Americans: a former Harvard basketball player (recent graduate) who's heading up a program to teach Israeli and Palestinian kids basketball so they can play together on integrated teams. They also teach girls, both Palestinian and Israeli, which I think is so cool. He's a celebrity in the West Bank, not only because he plays on a local team, but is so nice, and also happens to be 6'11! The other American is only 20 or so, and although she is full Palestinian, speaks not a word of Arabic, and has the most American accent I've ever heard. She bemoans that her family here keeps trying to set her up with a husband and think she has come here only for that purpose.

Anyway, back to the teacher Sami. He shares his opinions very liberally in class--and very seriously. Our vocabulary is regularly enriched with such phrases as, say... "Bush is against democracy. Israel and the US are two sides of the same coin. This is life under occupation. The United States is against human rights. Today's phrase was a real keeper. "The powerful, --America and Israel, eat the weak like fish." He demonstrated this sentence by opening up wide his arms to convey a big fish gulping down a small one. I honestly wish I could videotape a class and post it. It's quite a sight.

Not surprisingly, Sami also likes North Korea because they are a small country but are standing up to the US. After one of his tirades, he has several times turned to me to say he is sorry, he is only against the US government and the policies, not the people. I think he conveniently forgets that I used to work for the USG!

Sami also shares his stories of his life here. He is originally from Gaza but has not been allowed to go there for six years, even though all of his family is there. He told us how three years ago, his Mother died, and he was not able to go see her before she died or attend the funeral. Last week he also tried to go to Jerusalem to go to the al Aqsa mosque to pray during Ramadan. He was very excited because he has been trying for years and was told that now individuals over 40 can go and he is 45. At the checkpoint, however, they said that the new law is that only Palestinians over 45 can visit Jerusalem, so he was turned back. "Why? Am I a terrorist? The women and children who were also turned back--are they terrorists?? This is the occupation!!" he railed.

Sami also teaches my Modern Standard Arabic class, in which he is much more subdued, way more serious, and rarely jokes. Maybe it's to reflect the more serious content, formal Arabic as opposed to the dialect... In that class, we are focusing heavily on Arabic grammar, which makes English look like baby talk. We're talking, different pronunciations and markings for the same word, depending whether it is nominative, accusative, or possessive. Also, separate endings for dual, masculine human, masculine non-human, feminine human, feminine non-human, and again, where it falls in the sentence, whether nom. acc. or gelative. Sigh, you have to really think hard before you open your mouth if you speak in the MSA way. The only consolation is that native speakers find this stuff impossible as well, (although that makes it difficult to get help with my homework!)

The hardest part about Arabic so far is that in reality, I'm learning two different languages at the same time, the dialect and MSA. There are almost always different words for the same thing, whether it's a verb or a noun or an adjective. That makes retention difficult because one has to learn so many, many words. Also, the verbs are a killer because the conjugations are largely irregular and there is no magic book, such as 501 verbs, like there is in French and Spanish that has the tables of all important verbs. So, I always mess up the pronunciation and verbs are the main part of speaking! Insha'allah it will get better...

Our last day of classes was today. We now have a break for the Eid holiday, which is the end of Ramadan. Here, families get together and also spend a lot of time picking olives. I am hoping to get in on the action somehow...will keep you posted!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Samira's Story

A few days ago I spent the day with an Israeli Arab friend of mine in Jerualem. I'll call her "Samira". I just have to share her perspective because it parallels that of most Israeli Arabs. Psychologists would have a hey-day with Israeli Arabs’ predicament—talk about true identity crisis.

Samira grew up in Nazareth, a primarily Arab (i.e. Palestinian) town, which became part of Israel in 1948. Samira grew up speaking Arabic at home but Hebrew in school. She speaks them both equally well, and says she doesn’t remember a time in her life before she was speaking Hebrew. (I'm a little confused by this, because another friend of mine, a Jewish American living in Tel Aviv, says schools are completely segregated, and Arabs go to their own school, which is taught in Arabic. Maybe Samira went to a private school?)

Samira is Muslim, is fasting for Ramadan, but enjoys beer, does not wear a headscarf and even wears tanktops and strapless tops. On the topic of strapless tops, she relayed what happened to her last week in East Jerusalem (the Arab area). She was wearing a strapless top and driving in the car with her friend. They stopped at a traffic light and a woman in the car next to them motioned for her to roll down her window. She did so, thinking that the woman must know her. When she rolled down the window, the lady spat at her and accused her of betraying Islam. Samira was shocked, saying this had never happened to her before in her life.

Samira lives in a convent in Jerusalem, (yes, a convent!), in a room that she shares with a Palestinian Christian girl. The nuns rent out rooms in the convent as a way to sustain themselves. It's actually a pretty good set-up, located in a fabulous part of Jerusalem, within walking distance to everything. Outside is a beautiful garden, the rooms are moderate size, and the kitchen is clean and spacious. And it's impossible to be late to church, since it's just down the hall! The downsides are that she must be back by 11:00 pm or she's locked out. Also, the girls must keep noise to a minimum, understandably.

Samira navigates between the two different worlds, Jewish and Arab, with remarkable ease--speaking Hebrew at one shop, Arabic in another-- covering her arms with a sweater on one side of town, taking it off in the other. It all appears second nature to her, while to an outsider, it is astounding.

Samira can see the two sides of each issue. For example, terrorism is a real threat, she relates. Her good friend (also Israeli Arab) was killed in a bus that was blown up by Palestinian extremists. Yet, at the same time, she experiences the racism of being a non-Jewish Israeli citizen and says the wall and the occupation are illegal measures that force Palestinians to take such desperate actions.

She described the strange and lonely feeling of being caught between identities. "When I see an Israeli flag, I feel nothing. But also when I see a Palestinian flag, I feel nothing. I am neither." Her Mom tried constantly to impress upon them that they were Palestinians and related the horror stories of what happened to their family in 1948 when they were moved from their village by Israeli forces and many family members killed. Travelling abroad presents unique challenges as well, and for her, she said first presented the occasion for a confused identity. When people ask her where she's from, she would think, "I'm Palestinian", yet have to pull out an Israeli passport. Also, as an Israeli citizen, she can only travel to countries in the region that recognize Israel, i.e. Egypt and Jordan. Yet, as an Arab, she feels that she should be allowed to see other countries.

When I asked her if she would become a citizen of Palestine if it became a state, she said she would, "only if I can enjoy the same freedoms I enjoy now in Israel." I immediately thought was an amazing irony that was. Palestinians in the occupied territories pray daily for their own state and for the end of occupation so they can have even basic freedoms, yet those Arabs living freely in Israel would see a decrease in their personal freedoms.

It's interesting, on that point, I can also see clearly the two sides of the issues. Every time I'm in Tel Aviv, at the beach in my bathing suit, on the ultimate frisbee field in my shorts playing with guys, I literally thank God that I'm from a culture and have access to a culture that does not care in any way what you wear and what you do. As a woman, the feeling is priceless. And yet, I see too that for Palestinians in the territories, they lack freedom on a much more basic level. Who thinks of what to wear or of frolicking at the beach when you can't travel to see your family or are thrown in prison arbitrarily? It's apples and oranges...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ah...justice--Arab style

Another gorgeous day in is perfect here. Slight breeze, sunny skies, slightly warm.

Anyway...I have to share an unnerving experience from last night. I was walking home from the gym at 6pm. It was dark by then and the streets were deserted since everyone was home eating Iftar (the breaking of the fast for Ramadan at about 5:30.) I heard someone walking behind me the entire time but I just kept walking and didn't turn around. The man finally caught up to me but was walking on the other side of the street. When we came to a part of the road without any street lights, he walked over to me, very close, and said "How are you, what's going on," in Arabic in this low, slightly menacing voice. I yelled, "Go away" in Arabic, but he just came closer. So, I sprinted off as fast as I possibly could and ran all the way home.

I went straight to my neighbor's apartment and told them what happened. They all yelled at me for walking by myself after dark and said they had warned me against it a million times. (True, I said sheepishly.)

My neighbor said next time I go to the gym, he's going to round up a dozen of his friends, and wait for me in the bushes. If that guy follows me again and tries to talk to me, they're going to grab him, put a bag over his head, take him to a deserted olive tree grove, and beat the living crap out of him. Then, they're going to take him to the police station and tell him that the man tried to intimidate a foreign woman and that this reflects poorly on all Palestinians. Then, my neighbor assured me, the police will do the exact same thing to the guy a second time.

Ahhhh...justice--Arab style!

It is so nice having such great neighbors who keep a tight watch over the apartment building as things are not so safe these days. There have been several robberies lately, no surprise because the situation is getting increasingly desperate since no one is getting paid!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Stoned in Hebron--(by settlers)

Hebron, southwest of Bethlehem about 45 minutes, is the most intense place I’ve been to here so far.

It felt totally surreal—with zealous settlers right downtown in the middle of a conservative Palestinian city. Much more conservative than Bethlehem, everyone on the streets wore a headscarf and clothes that covered all arms and legs. Upon entering Hebron, we went straight to the old city, where our guide warned us there is great tension between Palestinians and die-hard settlers who live right in the old city, near the Abraham mosque/synagogue, where the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Sarah all reside.

We walked through the maze of old city streets, where we were certainly cause for excitement as foreigners. We got constant, “Welcome to Hebron. Where are you from?” Kids followed us most of the way and one guy said that we were the first tourists he had seen in months. As we got closer to the middle of the old city, the streets became more and more deserted and all the shops were closed. Our guide said that the Israeli army had cleared out the area and shut it down for “security reasons” and people were just now starting to come back. All along the top of the market, there were nets protecting shopkeepers and shoppers from the trash that the settlers living above throw intentionally down on them.

The Abraham mosque/synagogue had been both in one but was completely divided into two parts (one side a mosque/one side a synagogue) since the 1994 shooting inside by an Israeli (actually American) extremist who killed 21 people. So, one side of the structure is now used as a mosque and the other as a synagogue. Since it was Ramadan, we were not allowed to go into the mosque so we walked around the building to see if we could go into the synagogue part. You go through a mini-checkpoint and all of a sudden you are in a different world. Israeli soldiers everywhere and humvees, signs in Hebrew, and women in long skirts and men with long beards. We were allowed in and I went in to the area reserved for women to pray. There were even Israeli soldiers inside the synagogue and we had to go through a security check before entering. We were asked why we wanted to go and our response that we were Christian was apparently good enough! Since our Palestinian guide was not allowed in, I asked people inside to tell us a little about the place. They pointed out the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah, around which people were fervently praying by swaying back and forth. (Apparently, the actual tombs are way below the synagogue.)

After the Abraham mosque, we visited the home of a Palestinian lady whose house is near the market, but whose balcony overlooks a street that has been closed to all but settlers moving from their respective neighborhoods to the Abraham mosque/synagogue. She told us how settlers (usually teenagers) throw rocks every night at her house and have broken all of her windows. Having spent her entire life in Hebron, she shared countless stories about life under occupation and the treatment of her family and her friends by the Israeli army inside Hebron.

We walked out on the balcony and saw different groups of teenagers walking by along the street, each group armed with a huge M-16 gun. In some cases, the gun looked bigger than they did. (see picture). The freedom to carry weapons here makes cowboy US look like gun-shy Europe. We got many dirty looks from the settlers, who probably wondered what these foreigners were doing on the balcony of a Palestinian home. Later, my roommate was standing out there and was jeered at by some teenagers. Three seconds later, she popped her head back in and our guide yelled at us to shut the window. THWACK!! A big rock hit the window! We were actually stoned by settlers. Unbelievable.

On the lady's roof, we saw that there are actually five settlements inside the old city alone. In each direction, one can see a military encampment, a settlement.

The lady’s comments about her experience echoed a common complaint. She understands that these troops are doing their job—each Israeli Jew (Israeli Arabs are not allowed) must serve in the army. She shared that it’s not so much the fact that the troops are there. The main irritant is that the soldiers don’t treat the Palestinians as humans. The Palestinians feel they are treated worse than animals. And they have no recourse to the law. Many times the lady said she has threatened to report the behavior of certain officers to the "authorities" and they have said, “go ahead and report it to whoever you want; tell Sharon even, " knowing full well it doesn’t matter what she says. Nowadays, she resorts to calling the Christian Peacemaker Teams, who are there in Hebron to act primarily as international observers. When they show up, inevitably the soldiers change their tune and do not want to be documented as being unfair.

After that harrowing experience, we visited a glass-blowing shop and watched the glass-blower sit in front of the hot oven and make a vase. He normally does not work during the day during Ramadan, he said, but made an exception for his visitors. We were all in awe at his skill and bought several items as gifts.

After our incredibly long day, we had to hurry back to the West Bank because at sundown Jews began their 24 hour fast for Yom Kippur--which includes not using anything electronic (cars, phones, etc.) We had heard that they even stop and fine people driving on the streets. (Indeed, my friend drove back later that night and kids threw rocks at his car and tried to stop him from driving!) We made it back in time to Ramallah and hung out at the Christian Orthodox club, chatted with people there, played basketball, and finally made it home exhausted!

O Little Town of Bethlehem---getting littler

This weekend I went with three fellow students to Bethlehem and Hebron on a tour that is part a growing industry in Palestine--"occupation tourism". There is a non-profit organization/travel agency that specializes in showing visitors the devastating effects of the Israeli occupation on the life of Palestinians. One of our group has a car so he picked us up outside the checkpoint into Jerusalem and we drove together into Bethlehem. After getting lost for a few minutes trying to find the entrance into Bethlehem (which is completely surrounded by a gigantic wall,) we finally found it, graced by what we thought the most oxymoronic welcome--an enormous "Peace be with you" sign by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. (see picture)

We met up with our guide, and dropped our bags off at the Arab Women’s Union hostel in the town of Bet Sahor, a primarily Christian town next to Bethlehem. Our guide said Bethlehem is about 80% Muslim, but Bet Sahor is about 80% Christian.

We first visited an NGO promoting bridge-building activities between Israelis and Palestinians as well as comprehensive news coverage on their related website, Check it out for constantly updated news about Israel/Palestine. They seemed a bit downtrodden; the director, a Palestinian christian, admitted he was “very tired” with the whole situation and lamented that the more you know about the situation and the more you try to take it on, the more tiring it is.

As our positive highlight of the day, we visited the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born. Interestingly enough, the “stable” we think of where he was born is actually a cave below the altar, and a star with 14 points on it marks the spot where he was born (14 for the 14 stations Jesus stopped on while he carried the cross as well as the 14 generations from David) . A separate shrine marks the spot where Mary laid Jesus in the manger. The church is the oldest in the region, from 300 something AD and was not destroyed by the Persian invaders in ?? year, like every other structure was in Bethlehem. Our guide said the Persians didn't destroy the church because they saw a mosaic on the outside of the church of the 3 wisemen in Persian dress and thought that there must be Persians who live or worship there. Just like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Jesus died, the church is divided into three sectors, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic church. Each year around Christmas the different sects celebrate Jesus’ birthday on a different day. 24 December Mass, for example, is held in the Catholic part of the church only.

After the church, we got a tour of a refugee camp in Bethlehem, located right next to the wall that surrounds Bethlehem. We heard their stories of the wall being built and cutting them off from the olive trees, fields, and playgrounds that were right next to the camp. We saw the zig-zag of the wall that was designed to close Bethlehem in as tightly as possible and take as much land as possible from the area. We could also see a huge Israeli settlement close to Bethlehem, an area packed so tightly with apartments, it looked like a block of legos. They showed us pictures of what it used to look like—a mountain covered with forest (the only forest in the area) and belonging to the Arab Abu Gheinem family. There is now not one tree on the entire huge hill, so covered it is with apartments.

The night we spent in Bet Sahor was very low-key. After a small dinner, we walked around the beatiful old city with cobble-stone streets. It was a shock to see women walking around in low-cut and sleeveless tops and shorter pants and not a hijab in sight. You could definitely tell the town was Christian! Also men and women mingling together, which is a rare sight in the West Bank. Back home to get ready for the next adventure!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It's getting hot in here

I'm beginning to see a pattern. Baghdad was relatively safe and quiet when I arrived in October 2003. We could still go out to restaurants and drive around town. A month later, the insurgency really kicked off with the rocketing of the al-Rashid hotel. This time, I arrived to the West Bank a month ago to a quiet environment, and now, a month later, things are heating up. What am I doing wrong??

I returned to Ramallah Sunday evening after a weekend away to find the streets were deserted and every shop was closed. I found out the next day about the clashes in Gaza and the storming of the cabinet office in Ramallah. Yesterday, everything in Ramallah was again closed, according to the news, the general strike was called by Fatah as a protest to Hamas’ actions in Gaza. They closed the university as well; we were told to evacuate campus as soon as possible in the middle of my morning class.

In my social science class, the professor opened with that question. “Will there be a civil war in Palestine?” The consensus was that there would definitely not be , but that civil infighting would present a unique horror for Palestinians, with them fighting and destroying each other, while Israel could continue to land grab and plot for the future while the Palestinians are distracted.

My social science professor saw Sunday’s actions by Hamas in Gaza as a warning to Fatah, provoked by recent talk of holding new elections. Hamas seeks to remind everyone that it won the elections and is not to be trifled with. Although, most people now think that if elections were held again, Hamas would not win because people are tired of the current stalemate.

There is hope that when Mahmoud Abbas returns in a few days, he will in earnest address the violence and the current stalemate, but no one is optimistic the situation will change anytime soon.