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.