I've sampled quite a bit of falafel, but none has ever hit the spot like this one. The kind that's piled high with hummus, tomatoes, beets, pickles, salad, and onions. Dang, I'm crouching down behind my computer at the internet terminal, praying that the guy at the desk doesn't see me stuffing my face with this goodness. It might be that I was starving and it's 4:15 and I hadn't eaten anything all day. Or it might be the feeling that I've earned this falafel because it was my first time ordering all in Arabic! I walked into this local joint in Birzeit, and everyone turned around to stare. (All men there, of course. The women were probably in the back cooking.) But the man who took my order was extremely nice and thankfully, patient.
I arrived to Birzeit last night after getting a ride out of Jerusalem from the hotel receptionist at the Olive Tree hotel, where I stayed Friday night. (No, Mom, he did NOT kidnap me.) His name was Shweki and he also attended Birzeit until it was shut down in 2000 due to the intifadah. He then transferred to Hebrew University and paid for it on his own, although it was much more expensive than Birzeit. He even got a merit scholarship his second year because of his high marks. He had many interesting stories to tell.
As we drove through the checkpoints and I was aghast at the line that stretched for miles of cars waiting to go from Ramallah to Jerusalem, he told me that it would take him hours to return back to Jerusalem after dropping me off. Shweki noted that only individuals with a blue identity card (meaning citizen of Jerusalem) were allowed in and those with green cards (meaning Palestinians from the West Bank) were never allowed to go to Jerusalem or into Israel. Shweki himself was born in Jerusalem and felt very privileged since he could go back and forth as he pleased, provided he wanted to wait in the checkpoint line. His blue identity card meant he could also work in Jerusalem where there were better paying jobs. The problem, he said, was that he would much rather live in Ramallah, the happening place for Arabs. He had not yet found a wife and there were not many Arabs in Jerusalem, he thought.
He shared a deep desire to travel, which he said is unlikely to come true. Since he was an Arab born in Jerusalem, he cannot get a Palestinian passport unless he turns in his Jerusalem identity card. On the other hand, he paid several thousand shekels to apply for an Israeli passport and was also denied for "security reasons". Shweki laughed at that, saying, "I'm a young, unmarried, Arab male. Those are the security reasons."
We stopped in Ramallah so he could show me the main street filled with shops and restaurants. It was swamped with people, and I was shocked at how many women were not wearing a headscarf and were dressed fashionably. I bought a local cell phone and went to the bank, and then we headed off to Birzeit University. The view was stupendous. We drove all along a ridge where you could see little villages on each hilltop. The scenery is very similar to Jordan, very hilly and rocky, and buildings all in white, beige, and brown.
We arrived at the school in about 10 minutes. Shweki clearly enjoyed showing me around his alma mater and recounted his happy, though brief, school days (he's only 28, so it wasn't that long ago!) We found the PAS office (Palestine and Arabic studies) and I told them who I was. They asked if I had encountered any problems getting into Israel, since 3 PAS students were already denied entry. I shared with the questioning I'd had at JFK, and they said that was pretty light! They said the landlord would be there soon to show me to my apartment and that they would see me on Monday for orientation.
I said goodbye to Shweki and made my way in my landlord's tiny, beat-up car with no door handles and that barely held my huge, heavy suitcase. His broken English and my non-existent Arabic kept conversation to a minimum, but I did not conceal my pleasure when we got to the apartment. It's in the town of Birzeit about 10 minutes away from campus (and in the opposite direction of Ramallah). It is so much nicer than I had imagined! It is in the traditional Arabic style, with beautiful rugs and paintings. My room has a beatiful archway above it and two huge bookcases filled with books I want to read! There is also a sunroom with a beatiful view of the valley below, a family room, dining room, two bathrooms (only one shower) and an ample kitchen. I'll share the house with one other woman who arrives Monday.
I've only been here a total of 24 hours, but it already feels so different. I could immediately tell the difference between here and Baghdad, in that, I'm right in the middle of society here. I'm living with the people, conversing with them in the market, the restaurant, the cafe. My house is right next door to theirs. The Muslim prayer call sounds like it's in the middle of my house. I felt so removed from the outside world in Baghdad--enclosed in a little America inside of an Arab city. We used to call it a prison. There are no walls or barriers here. No separation. That is so freeing, but at the same time, slightly intimidating...