Last night at 10pm I was sitting reading my Arabic children's books and I got a knock on my door. It was a young man who I recognized as my neighbor who lived upstairs. "Mas'al-khair (good evening), come drink coffee." "Thank you for the invitation, but I'm reading," I tried to respond politely. (Again, this is all in the broken English/Arabic exchange that is becoming uncomfortably familiar.) "No, you stay too long in this house. Come and sit down," he urged. Too long, I thought? I had just arrived the evening before and unpacked and had already walked around town. I remembered, though, how Arabs found it very strange for people to spend any time alone and that there were no equivalent expressions for "quiet time" or reflection--there was only the negative word "lonely".
So out I went to sit with him and his friends on our shared porch. They brought me bitter Turkish coffee and sweets and orange juice and smoked the hooka pipe and asked me lots of questions. It turned out to be much better than reading those children's books. I actually learned a lot through the question and answer mode. I had brought a book with me and after they were done smoking, my neighbor Wisam said he would help me read the book. It was already late at this point and I said, "Okay, great! But could we do it tomorrow?" "No, we will read tonight." I asked several more times, but he was insistent so he and his three roommates smoked cigarettes and corrected my pronunciation of the silly stories in the children's books. "plate, spoon, fork". Nura likes to eat vegetables. Nura likes to go to sleep, etc." It was pretty amusing, actually.
Today was our first day of orientation and it turns out my experience at JFK was nothing compared to what the rest of the students went through. 4 were denied entry outright; several were subjected to 7-9 hours of questioning; one had her laptop and several pairs of jeans taken. (huh? she had no idea what that was about!) And most of these were blue-eyed Europeans! A couple others were not given any stamp or card in their passport meaning they have to go back to the airport and beg for one. I'm not looking forward to renewing my visa after a couple of months. I'm already daydreaming about possible stories I could make up...I want to convert to Judaism; I'm dying to learn Hebrew; I want to join the Israeli military.
Our program director said the US Embassy reported that the Israeli authorities deny 24 Americans entry into Israel PER DAY. At that rate, it's a miracle I got in. She claimed it was part of an underhanded Israeli policy to isolate the West Bank from outsiders who could get an accurate picture of what life is like for Palestinians and portray that to the outside world, and also to prevent people of Palestinian origin from emigrating back to the region in order to limit their numbers. She said with that in mind, she was deeply touched that we international students came despite the distorted and exaggerated media messages about safety and life in the West Bank, and even though we were not sure it would be safe.
A couple other tidbits from the lectures:
--PAS program established in 88 as a reaction to the first intifadah to get internationals to bear witness to the events.
--Birzeit used to have 400 students from Gaza; now they only have 13 because it's so difficult for them to leave their area and transit to the West Bank.
--Birzeit has been closed by Israeli authorities 15 times for "security reasons". 95 students are in Israeli prisons. They tend to target student leaders and three student union leaders have been imprisoned. (The directors took great pains to explain that these were not militants, just strong and active students. There have never been any militant activities on campus, according to them.)