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...

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