Sunday, September 25, 2005

Qalauilia, qalquilia

Today I went to Qalquilia for the second time. This time my roommate, M, organized a trip for interested students which was guided her friend and fellow ISMer. M worked with ISM two summers ago in Qalquilia, protesting the building of the wall. When she was there they were less than half-way finished with their construction of the wall around Qalquilia – now the city in completely encircled, except for two entrances which can be easily closed (one of which was recently opened). We weren’t sure if we would be able to travel to Qalquilia because the West Bank was sealed off yesterday, but we managed without any difficulty.

When we arrived, we met our guide at the southwestern edge of the city, by the wall. He explained that people in Qalquilia used to be able to enter Israel without any trouble, and that most of the people who lived in the town were either farmers or had worked in Israel. The wall has separated many farmers from their land (which is now a highway for Israelis only) and stopped many people from commuting into Israel to work. Also, I learned that a lot of Israelis used to come to Qalquilia to shop because of the produce and the prices, but this has also been stopped by the wall. I can’t get over how big, and how permanent the wall is. Peace groups have painted murals and sprayed slogans onto the wall – which is cool, but seems futile. I mean, it is still there. We could see the Israeli guard tower and the camera boxes that line the wall so that Israel can see if anyone approaches. We approached anyway, and took lots of pictures.

Next, we visited a site where a tunnel has been created to allow Qalquilians to travel to other Palestinian villages to the south. The tunnel, which is more like an underpass, goes beneath a settler road – which makes sure the settlers don’t have to come into contact with Palestinians. The tunnels all have gates, which means that Israel can control the flow of traffic much easier, and with fewer soldiers, than they could before. This is the second phase of the wall plan. These tunnels are being created to split the West Bank regions into little cantons that can be easily controlled. Perpendicular to the tunnels, deep trenches have been dug, so that Palestinians can’t climb up the sides to cross over the settler roads. Of course, in order to complete these projects more viable Palestinian land has been confiscated.

The last site we visited was a place where the Israelis have constructed large buildings, warehouse style. Apparently, this will be a new opening, where Palestinians who want to work in Israel will be allowed to cross over. Our guide said this will be the only crossing available in the north, and may be the only crossing for the entire West Bank, but they don’t know the details yet. This way, Israel will be able to maintain and control its cheap labor source.

We stopped for tea at our guide’s family’s house, where we learned about the fertile land in Qalquilia, and her rich water resources. Did you know that the Palestinians are not allowed to install new motors in their wells? They are still using equipment from the British colonial period, run by car batteries because Israel will not allow the permits to install modern equipment. When I asked why they don’t just smuggle in the new equipment, he said Israel sends inspectors to the wells. The Israelis have also installed meters on all of the Palestinian wells, and if the Palestinians overdraw their well (or have new equipment), the Israelis close them down. Now, this is all in Qalquilia, which is under the jurisdiction of the PA (supposedly). Meanwhile, settlements use 9-10 times the amount of water people in the West Bank use (or are allowed to use) per day, per person.

Our guide also told us about the nonviolent, Palestinian protests that the residents organized when the construction of the wall began. I guess, after three Palestinians were killed, they dropped the protesting until ISM and other international organizations became involved.

Despite everything, our guide was very positive about the effect that the nonviolent movement is having in the West Bank. He seemed hopeful that with increased media attention, the international community to realize what is happening here and become more involved. I suppose it could happen – I mean it worked in South Africa – but I am not as optimistic as he is. There is no doubt that the nonviolent movement is having an impact, but will it make enough of a difference? I hope so.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

My First Look at Abbas

Saturday I skipped my first Arabic class – I wish I could say that it was because I was doing something exciting, but to be honest it was because I hadn’t slept the night before and couldn’t stand the thought of 2 hours of my painfully boring colloquial class. I also wish that I could say I hadn’t slept because I had been doing something meaningful, or at least something fun, but the truth is I had a mosquito in my room that kept buzzing around my head until I finally killed him at about 3:30 am. I was still awake at 5:30, which is when I decided to just turn of the alarm and call it a wash.

So, I arrived at campus late, and missed part of the hub-bub. Apparently the Birzeit students decided to go on strike that morning in solidarity with the people in Gaza who had been killed/ injured during the Hamas parade. Last I heard, no one is quite sure what happened – Fatah is blaming Hamas, saying that they mishandled their explosives; Hamas is saying it was an Israeli attack . . . I don’t have a television at home, so I don’t mind not having one here, but it would be easier to keep up with the local news, especially since it can be important. For example, it would be nice to know when the Israeli’s decide to close all the checkpoints leaving the West Bank, which they apparently did Saturday morning.

Luckily, they didn’t close any of the paths within the West Bank, so I was able to head down to Arafat’s compound in Ramallah that afternoon to see Abu-Mazen (Abbas) address the Palestinian people. We arrived about 40 minutes before the show was scheduled to start, which left us plenty of time to have our bags searched twice, and elbow through the crowd to find a good standing spot. Now, this would not have been enough time at home, but since time is very relative in the Middle East, we didn’t have any trouble. A lot of people who arrived later weren’t able to get into the compound because it was full.

There were soldiers everywhere, standing on rooftops with machine guns, at the entrance, in the crowd and of course around the stage. I’m still not used to such blatant displays of weaponry, so it made me very uncomfortable. Lots of people were wearing t-shirts and holding signs demanding the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. One of the big banners said, “Removing the Settlements in Gaza was easy . . . DO IT HERE NOW”. And of course there were signs demanding the removal of the apartheid wall. Lots of people were holding and waving Palestinian flags, especially children. I’m not even going to guess how many people actually turned out, but the compound was full and there were lots of people crowding the streets outside.

As internationals, the four of us kind of stuck out in the crowd. Many people greeted us, and posed for our cameras. After the usual pomp and circumstance Abbas came onstage and spoke for about 40 minutes. I didn’t catch most of what he said, but he talked about returning to the ’67 Green Line, removal of the settlements from the West Bank, and he definitely said that Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state. He talked about living in peace with the Israelis and about defying the wall. I think he said something about his Palestinian brothers and sisters being a strong people, and something about fighting for their freedom. Obviously, I have a long way to go with my Arabic.

I was not very impressed by Abbas as a speaker. The man has zero charisma and no idea of how to engage an audience. The whole thing reminded me of the communist Soviet Union – all the soldiers with big guns, a line of important men in suits, and an incredibly boring speech.

After he finished speaking, we decided to try and leave the compound through the one, relatively narrow gate. This was a mistake, we would have been much better off to just wait until the crowd had thinned out. As we approached the exit, we made a line with P and Mat in the front and back and M and I in the middle. It got a little crazy for a couple of minutes with people shoving and pushing but we managed to stay together. At one point I was pushed to my left and I rammed into the nozzle of one of the soldier’s guns. That is as close as I ever want to come to a machine gun. Once the soldiers saw us in the crowd, they actually cleared a path for us, the internationals. That made me feel bad . . .but I was happy for it all the same. Once we cleared the entrance we were fine, and caught a service back to Birzeit without too much difficulty.

That night we went to a pot luck dance party at P’s apartment. I had a very good time . . . we had about half international students and half Palestinians. I got to practice my Arabic a little . . . M and I brought tabouleh to the potluck, which was a big success (mostly thanks to M). Came home around 11 as the parties end early in Palestine, or at least they do when people live in apartments with curfews . . . Overall, I had a great day, and I was very glad that I decided to skip my class.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Film Festival, Part Two

Today, for the first time, I felt unsafe in Ramallah. Not because of anything that happened to me, but because of two documentaries that I saw as a part of the Women’s Film Festival. The first documentary, called Massacre, is about the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacre in Lebanon. Directed by a German woman, the documentary focuses on the stories of Lebanese men who participated in the massacre. These six men agreed to participate in the documentary on the condition that they would remain anonymous. Some were remorseful, and some were not – but the stories they told were chilling. I have seen similar accounts from Nazi soldiers about the realities of the atrocities they committed during WWII, and this was disturbingly reminiscent. What human beings are capable of is both terrible and terrifying. Several of the Lebanese men talked about being trained in Israel, and talked about the Israeli involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. One of the men said that the Israeli army had planned ahead and provided the plastic bags and the chemicals necessary for the mass burial of the Palestinians that had been murdered.

I truly believe that most of the Lebanese soldiers didn’t know what they were getting into when they went to Sabra and Shatila. Obviously, once there, they had a choice – and some (not many) did chose to walk away. Those soldiers are responsible for their actions, but they were not the ones who planned the incident. Higher up Lebanese generals and Israeli army officials (including Sharon) planned the details of the massacre. They knew what was going to happen; the idea of people sitting in a room and coldly calculating the number of body bags they would need for the people they were going to kill makes my skin crawl.

After the full length documentary, we watched a 30 minute documentary about the siege of Ramallah in 2003. Of course I knew that Ramallah had been occupied and bombed during that time, but it takes a whole new meaning when you recognize the buildings that have been bombed and meet the director/ narrator who is still living in Ramallah. I am amazed at how good Ramallah looks now considering how trashed it was after the siege. Buildings were bombed, store fronts shot up, cars destroyed and used to block main streets. The woman who made the documentary works at the Ministry of Culture in Ramallah which was used to house Israeli soldiers during the siege. She filmed footage of the building after the Israeli soldiers departed – leaving behind feces smeared on walls and all over the floor, computers smashed and pissed on, furniture and windows broken, and threats written in Arabic and Hebrew on the walls. How does this secure the state of Israel? Of course I’ve heard of these things being done in schools and medical centers in Gaza, but again, it is something different to see it and to recognize the location of these acts.

So, I feel unsafe tonight because I’m not sure how fine the line is between the documentary I saw about Lebanon, and the documentary I saw about Ramallah. Those Lebanese men were “just following orders” same as the Nazi’s. How far will Israeli soldiers follow orders? At what point does the dehumanization of the other become so total that it is possible to “follow orders” in this manner? This is not just a commentary on the situation in Palestine – but more of a question about the human psyche. I think most people are capable of this kind of violence in the right circumstances . . . as much as I would prefer to think otherwise.

In response to some comments

A note to my readers:

I received this anonymous comment regarding my blog entry about the building of the wall in Deir Ballout.

"Sahar! The Palestinians who are building the wall are being paid to do so. You may not agree with this policy, but it is their choice to participate in the walls construction! The Jews who were massacred by the Nazis were slaves!!! How could you make that comparison? "

This was in response to my words:

"I can’t image how awful it must be to have to decide to build your own prison because you so desperately need the money to feed your family . . . it reminded me of Nazi’s during WWII forcing Jews to dig their own mass graves before massacring them."

I wanted to clarify that I said it reminded me of the situation in Nazi Germany. I did not say that it was the same -- only that one thing brought the other to mind. I am writing this journal as a way to comment on my thoughts and experiences during my time here. I am sorry if this offends some people, but I have a right to think freely and to share those thoughts with others.

I will continue to write this blog about my experiences and my thoughts and reactions to those experiences. All comments are welcome, but I do reserve the right to comment on your comments.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Women's Film Festival etc . . .

Today I went to the opening of the Women’s Film Festival in Ramallah, sponsored by an NGO called SHABBAT. This NGO focuses on identifying and changing stereotypes about women in Palestinian society. After a ridiculously long series of introductions, we watched a 90 minute film called Yasmin and 15 minute documentary called 25 kilometers.

Yasmin is about a British woman of Afghani descent who lives in a conservative family. The film is about her living the life of a normal British woman by day, and an Afghani, Muslim woman by night. The film is set in September of 2001, so the audience gets to see how her life is influenced by racism before and after the World Trade Center bombings. It was an uncomfortable movie for me to watch in many ways, not because I experienced the same kinds of situations that she did, but because the potential is there. I have certainly dealt with racism in the US since September 11, but I do not wear the hijab and most people don’t even recognize me as Arab at first glance.

The part of the movie that was most difficult for me actually dealt with Yasmin’s younger brother, who is in his mid to late teens. After the attacks he becomes much more politically involved and decides to join a group of freedom fighters who are going to Pakistan and Palestine to fight for their Muslim brothers. Her brother didn’t really remind me of my brothers, but her relationship with her brother really hit home for me. Just before he leaves Britain he comes to her and asks her to give him her blessing. She refuses, begging him not to go – but he leaves anyway.

Her brother became politically motivated as a direct response to the racism he was forced to live with every day. My brothers, one in particular, have also become motivated because of our reality as Arab-Americans in the US, as have I. I don’t think that this is a bad thing, but I worry about them anyway. As Arab-Americans they have less rights than other Americans today . . . political activities that most people take for granted can have far more serious consequences for us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of both of my brothers for their awareness and involvement . . . but I am scared for them as well.

After the film P, M and I headed back to Birzeit and grabbed a bite to eat. We also bought some kanafa and stopped at a corner store to pick up a couple beers. Outside the store we ran into Mike who told us that Israeli troops had just driven through town. There were a lot of youngish men hanging around the store, and Mike said they were waiting for the Israelis to come back through so that they could throw rocks at them. We took that as our cue to buy our beer and head out. After smuggling in our contraband (the alcohol and P) we settled down to enjoy our kanafa. As we sat, we heard gunfire and men yelling. I turned off the music and we all sat in silence and listened. P wanted to go out with his camera to get pictures, but I convinced him not to after the second round of gunfire went off. I don’t know if anyone was hurt, but I do know that the shooting started less than 10 minutes after we had been at the corner store where all the men were hanging around. . .

In unrelated news, there was a big Hamas rally today in Ramallah. I didn’t go, but one of my friends was showing me pictures of some of the Hamas posters. The posters feature very large guns, clenched fists, and the Dome of the Rock. The message is pretty clear – even without the Arabic words which translate into “I am coming for you, oh Jerusalem” (I think). Hamas only aggravates the situation with Israel, in my opinion. It’s like they are in a pissing contest with the Israelis, except the Israelis have a lot more money and much bigger guns . . . and a lot of innocent people’s lives are a stake.

Monday, September 19, 2005

English Lessons and Socialist Movements

I don’t have class on Mondays, so I slept in and then puttered around the house hand washing clothes, etc . . . We do have a washing machine in our flat, but it is pretty crappy, so the best thing to do is wash smaller things by hand – it actually saves time, believe it or not. I had planned an afternoon of working on my Arabic and my thesis, ended up with a day of serving tea and protecting socialist radicals from the police . . . funny how things don’t go as planned around here.

When my roommate came home from class, early, she brought two of our classmates over for tea/ coffee. So we had tea and discussed the current political situation in Germany with MT, who, being German, gave me some new insights to the political system. After they left, I settled down to work on my thesis when Hung Soon knocked on the door. She is one of three S. Korean students in the program, and although she came to see M, I became involved because her English isn’t very good and M’s Manchester accent makes it even more difficult for the two of them to carry a conversation. She had stopped by to tell M that one of the Palestinian students in her building who is studying English literature wanted to meet M and practice her English with her. At the end of the conversation, we decided that M would meet this student the following morning on the walk to school (or so we thought). About an hour later, Hung Soon reappeared at our door, with the Palestinian student in tow. Meanwhile, mind you, I had been trying to studiously work on my thesis, but was failing miserably.

Once Hung Soon and Miriam were installed in our sitting room, I put on the water for tea, leaving M to negotiate carrying out a conversation with a S. Korean who barely speaks English and a Palestinian student who speaks English but doesn’t really understand it all that well. Turns out Miriam, whose father is a religious leader in her village, is in her final year of study and needs to prepare for her final presentations in English. She was wearing the hijab and the full Islamic dress, including gloves. Her English was decent, but I could see why she wanted to practice. Anyway, M was a little put off by her pushiness regarding the English lessons, so after about 40 minutes I steered the two of them towards the door. Apparently Miriam has three native English speakers in her class, but she said they have different “lifestyles” so she doesn’t study with them. Made me wonder what she was thinking coming to our den of sin for lessons . . . So, once we got rid of them we made dinner, then decided to head to a local restaurant for a pint. This is when things got interesting.

The owner of the restaurant joined us shortly after we sat down and asked us if we had heard about what happened at the university that day. I hadn’t been to campus, and M is beginner with Arabic, so of course we had no idea what had happened. Apparently, the prime minister had come to the campus to speak about the importance of students protesting against the wall. The student organizations of PFLP (socialist) and Hamas (Islamic), however, were busy protesting against his visit because he owns stock in the company that is helping to build the wall . . . which is pretty revolting in my opinion.

Of course, the owner of the restaurant couldn’t just tell us this story – first we had to move our seats because we were sitting too close to people who work for the security forces at the university. It was all very cloak and dagger. Turns out, one of the students who led the protest works at the restaurant, and was hanging out in back waiting for the Palestinian Authority forces from Ramallah to come and arrest him for his activities. He had been tipped off by a source that they would probably be coming for him that night. M and I, along with 3 other international students, decided to sit with him and wait. We figured we couldn’t do much to protect him, but having internationals present might help keep the situation from getting out of control.

While we were sitting with the guys out back, I learned a lot about the corruption in the PA, and how unhappy a lot of Palestinians are with the situation. I was talking to a kid named Omar, who is about 20, about political situation within Palestine. He was describing the fights that go on between the residents of my village and the people who live in the adjacent refugee camp – but he was doing it in a disgustingly gleeful manner. He actually offered to bring us along the next time a good fight breaks out.

After a little while of listening to this, I stopped him and asked him in Arabic why he loved violence so much. He replied that the only law in Palestine today is the law of the jungle, and that people have a right to protect themselves. I argued that it didn’t make sense for Palestinians to fight amongst themselves – the occupation has had a bad enough effect on the Palestinians, and the violence, both structural and physical since the second Intifada is inundating the entire society.

He replied, and I quote, “Every Palestinian life is worth about 3 shekels, which is the price of a bullet. Your life is worth a little more because you have a different passport, but you’re still in the West Bank.”

I really wanted to push him on this topic more, but I felt like I didn’t have a right to sound like I was judging him, so I dropped it. I wanted to say something about the number of Palestinians who are fighting the occupation nonviolently, about the different groups and organizations who working to help fix this mess, or at least ease some of the burden. It seems like this generation of Palestinians is growing up without hope and without dreams . . . it is heartbreaking and terrifying at the same time. This conflict is robbing both sides of their children and creating a generation of angry, violent, racist people . . . obviously I am exaggerating based on one conversation, but it was really demoralizing to hear this kid talk about life so hopelessly.

We got a phone call around 1 am saying that the PA was not going to come after all, so M and I headed home. The next day classes were cancelled at the university between 12 and 3 pm because of a clash between the Fatah students (support the PA) and the PFLP and Hamas.

Naively, I thought that I would spend most of my time here learning about the occupation and its effects on the Palestinians. Of course I had heard about corruption in the PA, but I didn’t really think that they would arrest a student for speaking out against a government official. I have a lot to learn.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Touring the Countryside

Today I went on a tour to Deir Ballout, a village north of Ramallah that has been effected by the wall. We met at 8am at the post office (which was actually open for once) and then road a charted bus to the village. On the way we ran into a flying a check point (not a permanent structure, just something that appears and disappears at the whim of the Israeli’s. After two weeks of being here, I’m proud to say that my heart rate doesn’t accelerate anymore when I approach a checkpoint. P, a Canadian student, was filming from the window of the bus as we approached the checkpoint with a little handheld camcorder. When we stopped, the soldier approached the bus and immediately asked P to put down the camcorder in Arabic. P, playing stupid, replied that he didn’t speak Hebrew. Then the soldier made us all get out of the bus (P was still filming). He demanded to see P’s passport, and looked like he was going to give him a hard time, then A, another student, starting approaching the soldier with his camcorder asking if there was a problem . . . Luckily, the soldier decided not to make a big deal out of it and let us all get back on the bus and head out without even checking the rest of our passports.

I had noticed that there was a carload of Palestinian men who had been pulled over before us, and can’t help but wonder if the soldiers took out their annoyance at us on those men. Although most us on the bus were foreigners, our guide and our driver were both Palestinian, and the situation could have gotten ugly if they wanted it to . . .but P and A didn’t consider that in their moment of bravery.

(I can hear gunfire while I’m writing this in my apartment . . .)

We approached another checkpoint, this one permanent, at the entrance of the village we were visiting. This checkpoint blocks all traffic coming from and heading to Ramallah. Apparently, if the soldiers decide to close the checkpoint at night, people with medical emergencies from the village have to drive all the way north to Jenin or Qalquilia instead of the much shorter trip to Ramallah (which also has better facilities). At this checkpoint the soldier didn’t even bother stopping us once he saw P with his camcorder, so we headed into the village without any trouble.

We visited the town mayor, who explained how the villagers have been effected by the wall and the checkpoint (some of the villagers are actually outside the checkpoint) and how the village has been split into three separate territories: “A” controlled by the Palestinian Authority; “B” which is controlled by both the Israelis and the Palestinians; and “C” which is considered under Israeli control. I guess the village has about 5000 villagers inside the checkpoint, and about 1500 outside.

We visited the site that was being cleared for the wall, which will separate this village from its neighboring village, and the home of a man who refuses to leave even though the wall will cut right through his land. I also learned that the people who do most of the actual clearing and building of the wall are Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. I can’t image how awful it must be to have to decide to build your own prison because you so desperately need the money to feed your family . . . it reminded me of Nazi’s during WWII forcing Jews to dig their own mass graves before massacring them.

Next we visited a man whose home is in between the Wall and an Israeli settlement. He literally has the Wall to the left of his home a settlement on the right. In front of his house is a checkpoint that leads into the settlement. His house is completely fenced in on each side, either with the concrete wall or barbed wire and electric fencing. Even from the top of his two story house you can’t see over the 8 meter high wall to the rest of his village. The settlers are so close that they throw stones at this man and his family when they leave their house, and the stones have broken the solar panels on the house that provide hot water for him and his family.

ISM and Women Against the Wall came and painted murals on the family’s side of the wall, which helps a little, but the absurdity of the situation is unfathomable. The family has a key to the gate of their home, but only after many international groups lobbied for them. Even though they now have a key to the gate, they still have to go through the checkpoint to get into their town, so many times the children either can’t go to school, or can’t get home after school.

The man said that this is his fate, and his family will not leave this land. They were refugees from the 1948 areas, and he said they will not leave again. The Israeli government has offered the family an open check to buy the land (they don’t dare demolish it because of the international organizations that are involved), but the family has refused the money. The steadfastness of this man and his family is amazing and inspiring.

While we were there his 5 and 7 year old children came home from school. Not at all surprised by our group, they went around and shook everyone’s hand. They are obviously very used to curious internationals visiting, taking pictures, and asking questions.

We climbed back into the bus after about an hour and went back to the first village where we ate a traditional lunch then listened to a presentation from Women for Life, and the story of a woman who spent 11 years in an Israeli jail for being a member of Fatah. She was imprisoned in 1986 for supposedly killing a Israeli soldier. When she got out of prison, after years of torture and abuse, her son who had been 9 years old when she was imprisoned, was 20. She was not allowed one family visit the entire time of her imprisonment. She described horrible conditions where the food was contaminated with mice droppings, there wasn’t any clean water, and people were left in solitary confinement for months at a time. She said she was beaten, starved, tied up, sprayed with water and left tied to a chair in a room in the middle of winter with the air conditioning on. She described being shoved into a chamber like a dog kennel where you wouldn’t stand or lay flat for days at a time, expected to shit and piss on herself without any food or light, in complete silence or with a radio blasting in her ears.

She talked about 14 year old girls being in prison with her, and about a woman who has imprisoned while pregnant and was forced to give birth while tied to a bed.

Even after all of that, after losing 11 years of her life for a crime she didn’t commit, she is still willing to talk to groups of foreigners. American’s have so much freedom that they never use or appreciate and this woman who has lost so much is still willing to be politically active after all that she has suffered and lost.

I am so thankful to be an American and to have all the rights and privilidges that come with my dark blue passport – but at the same time I am ashamed of my country. I am embarrassed to admit that I am an American, and my country is the a huge part of the reason that Israel is able to maintain this occupation and torture these people.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Growing up under occupation

We had a birthday party for one of the girls in the program on Wed, Chamila, who is Sri Lanken but was adopted and grew up in Denmark. The party was at a local restaurant, and Chamilia insisted on providing all the food, cake etc . . . While I was at the party I met an 18 year old Palestinian girl named Shadia who is ranked as the number two chess player in Palestine. She just started her first year at Birzeit and is studying computer science, although she really wants to study medicine. I guess there aren’t any good medical schools in Palestine and her scholarship paperwork got held up, so she’s studying engineering while she waits to find out if she can get accepted to a program abroad.

Aside from being incredibly intelligent, Shadia is also stunningly beautiful in the quintessential Arab way. We were talking about the situation in Palestine and she said something that really struck me. I don’t recall the exact context of the conversation, but it was something along the lines of: “There are no children in Palestine. We are all grown up our whole lives – we have to be.”

The long-term effects of the occupation on the children here are overwhelming. UN studies have shown that Palestinian children today are growing up with emotional and developmental problems; they are afraid to go to school, some of them afraid to leave their houses because of the violence they see. These kids are growing up seeing their friends killed, their father’s humiliated and their neighbors starving. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, they can see how the settlers live – in comfort with green grass, private highways, good schools and freedom of movement.

I was in Qalquila for the past two days visiting my cousin’s family, and the situation there is heartbreaking. The city, which used to be a big farming/ market area, is now completely surrounded by the wall. While we were walking around the city, B’s mother pointed out building that had been bombed by the Israelis, and she showed me pictures plastered on walls and building of children who had died during the fighting there. She pointed out one picture of a young boy, maybe 13, and said he had been her son’s best friend.

Two of B’s sister’s are handicapped, I think one has Downs syndrome and the other has a problem with her legs and although she can walk, it is with obvious difficulty. There aren’t any facilities in Qalquila for these children, so the family does the best they can at home. The younger sister, Areej, has a learning disability, but is fully capable of attending school and learning, or she would be if there was a school available for her.

It was obvious that B’s family is not well off. Although they were incredibly generous with me and wouldn’t let me pay for anything . . . it is clear that they are suffering from the occupation. Food that isn’t eaten is carefully saved, the girls sleep on mats on the floor. While we were sitting down for breakfast yesterday B’s father opened the refrigerator and a glass bottle of ketchup fell out and smashed on the floor. Her older sister carefully picked the glass out of the ketchup then scooped it into a small container, skimming the ketchup carefully so that she didn’t get any that actually touched the floor . . . I wanted to say something about the tiny shards of glass probably in the ketchup, but I didn’t dare for fear of offending . . .
B had asked me what my favorite foods are, and I said that Magluba was my all time favorite (which I happen to know isn’t too difficult to make). Her aunt’s had my over for lunch on Friday, and lo-and-behold, we had Magluba for lunch. Usually, Magluba is made with lamb or chicken, but we had it without meat. On the side, they served stuffed pigeon. Pigeon is a much cheaper meat than either chicken or lamb . . . and if there were serving Magluba without meat when a guest was present, I can only assume that the financial situation is not good.

Overall, I had a good time in Qalquila, although I was happy to return to my own apartment. It was certainly good practice for my Arabic, although I was exhausted by the end of each day from trying so hard to understand and communicate. Maintaining that kind of concentration and focus over a long period of time is difficult. Yup, definitely glad to be back in my little ejneby (foreign) haven.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Musings on the Wall

Yesterday evening I hiked down into the Birzeit valley with P, just before sunset. The entire valley was terraced hundreds of years ago, and is now the home of some of Palestine’s famous olive trees. The countryside is stunning here, everywhere you look there are terraced hills with old, crumbly stone walls and olive trees. We settled onto one of the terraces, took some pictures and watched the sun set. There was plenty of light from the moon, and I was struck by the timelessness of the moment. Sitting in the olive grove, we were looking at the same view generations of Palestinians had admired. With the exception of the lights from the settlement which marred the otherwise beautiful night.

Luckily, we didn’t have any trouble climbing out of the olive grove, although I did manage to stick my hand in a thorn bush and now have several splinters.

After my hike I ran into my cousin, B, and I decided to level with her about my lifestyle. I figured that trying to keep so many secrets while she is practically my next-door-neighbor would be silly. She was very understanding, and I think that we understand each other better now. I met her for lunch today, and everything seemed okay, which I am very happy about. Tomorrow I will travel with her to Qalquilia to meet the rest of her family. Qalquila is one of the Palestinian cities that is completely surrounded by the wall, so hopefully I will be able to talk to people about the situation and their lives under occupation – we’ll see how well I navigate the language barrier . . .

This afternoon my program hosted a presentation on the Apartheid Wall by the Stop the Wall Campaign. I was already familiar with most of the information, but I did not know about Israel’s plan force Palestinian traffic in the West Bank through tunnels which can easily be closed by dropping a gate. Apparently this will significantly decrease the number of soldiers required to maintain the Occupation and control the Palestinian population. It is an incredibly clever plan. It never ceases to amaze me how creative humanity can be at solving problems, and how often the “solutions” we find are destructively aimed at other groups of people . . . At the end of the presentation our speaker talked about protest movements and what Palestinians are doing to try to stop the wall and the destruction of their land and their homes – but I have to admit it seemed a little hopeless. I don’t understand how the Israeli government can continue to implement their Wall – against international law – without suffering any consequences. Where is the international community?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Who knew I had family in Birzeit?

Birzeit University caters to both Islam and Christianity, meaning that we don’t have class on Friday or Sunday, but we do have classes on Saturday. So, I showed up for class a little early on Saturday and popped into the international student office to say hello and check my email. You can imagine my surprise when one of the staff told me that a member of my family was in the lobby, waiting to meet me.

Turns out one of my aunts (father’s sister) is married to a Palestinian man from Qalquila, and one of his nieces is in her third year of study at Birzeit. Word got through the grapevine that I was here and her parents sent her over to the international student office to find me. Now, this is the opportunity of a lifetime because a lot of Middle Eastern culture centers around the family, and most foreigners have a difficult time penetrating that barrier. B doesn’t speak much English, or at least she is too shy to speak to me in English, which means I have a great opportunity to practice my conversational Arabic with her. So, we chatted for about ten minutes and agreed to meet after my class. She seems very nice, but maintaining a conversation with her is extremely difficult because of the language barrier. She invited me over to her flat for tea and it turns out she lives on the same street that I do, just two building down.

After an incredibly painful hour of tea drinking and stilted conversation, I headed back to my apartment to have a cigarette. Then the reality of my situation hit me. I need to be very careful about where I smoke and who sees me smoking if I want to maintain my reputation with my family. I also need to be extremely careful about drinking in Birzeit (which is fine for Christians, but since I’m supposed to be Muslim it is a bit of a problem). Not to mention the problem of having boys over to my apartment. Most of the international students are male, so I’ll have to be careful about who sees men leaving my apartment. Now, I am in “no-ass land” as Nathan so fondly calls it, which means there would be absolutely nothing going on with me and said boys – but technically (for a nice Muslim girl) it is inappropriate to have classmates over to study or for coffee if they are guys – even during the day.

The next day B called me about 4 times until I agreed to meet her later that afternoon for tea again. I had work to do, so I finished everything I could do without an internet connection and saved it on my flash drive, then headed over for tea. I figured I’d have tea then head to the internet café. Oh no. First we had tea, then she insisted that I go with her to meet her friend before we went to the internet café together. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t think of a polite way out of it, plus I figured it would be good for my Arabic . . .

This turned into a two hour trip to visit her friend, by the end of which I couldn’t even be bothered to go to the café. I know she was just trying to be hospitable and introduce me to her friends, but after two hours of sitting in a room full of 18-20 year old Palestinian girls speaking to each other very quickly in colloquial Arabic I was ready to shoot myself. It didn’t help that every once in a while someone would as me if I understood, and when I said no, they would tell everyone else that I didn’t understand in Arabic. Of course, I understood THAT part. Finally, I told her that I needed to get going because I needed to call my mother in America at a certain time. Later that night her mother called me to confirm that I was coming to Qalquila with B on Thursday after my classes. I had already agreed to this, but I didn’t realize that they expected me to stay until Saturday.

One the one hand, I know that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. On the other hand, I have a lot of work I need to get done this semester . . . and I don’t see how I can juggle B, my classes, and my thesis research. I have no desire to spend most of the day Thursday, all day Friday, and half of Saturday with a family that I don’t know, and who don’t speak any English at all. There is no way that I can turn down their hospitality, and I could just leave Friday on my own, but I’m pretty sure they would make B leave with me, and I don’t want to spoil her visit home . . .

I need to find a way to handle this that allows me to live comfortably without offending anyone . . . I must be the only Kuwaiti-American girl in the world who has family in Palestine. I mean, what are the chances?!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

House of Meat, Return Trip

I returned to my hotel without any problems and in the morning I wandered downstairs to the “continental breakfast”. Luckily they had Nescafe because none of the food looked very appealing. While I was sitting there (alone because the tourism industry in Bethleham is pathetic right now) another woman walked in and sat down at the table beside me. We started talking, in Arabic, and it turns out she was from Haifa but traveled between Beit Lehem and Al-Quds quite often for business. I asked her if she knew the best way to travel from Beit Lehem back to Al-Quds (Jerusalem) on a Friday. She tried to explain a way, but I didn’t understand, then Yousef the employee got involved . . . he called a cab company who wanted to charge me an exorbitant rate, and then Clara said nevermind, she would drive me to Beit Hanin and it would be very easy for me to get to Kalandia from there. She said it was on her way since she was driving in that direction anyway.

I thanked her profusely, and we agreed to meet at the hotel at 2pm as she had some business to take care off – this worked out beautifully for me because I wanted to visit the Church of the Nativity and Milk Grotto while I was in Bethleham. So, after breakfast we went our separate ways, and I started walking from the hotel to the Main Street where I could pick up a cab to Manger Sq. As I’m walking a car beeps and pulls over; it is Clara telling me to get in and she’ll give me a ride to Manger Sq. I really can’t get over how friendly the people here are.

After she dropped me off I wandered over to the church, and a Palestinian man asked me in perfect English if I wanted a tour of the grounds. Now, I had my guide book with me and would have been perfectly happy to wander around on my own, but even I could see how crappy the tourist industry is at the moment, so I agreed to let him be my guide. So, we wandered around and he showed me all the important things and told me the stories and myths that surround the church compound (most of which I’d already read in my guidebook). I had to admit that although I like visiting old buildings and churches I’m not a particularly religious person. However, there is something to be said for the atmosphere in a place like the Church of the Nativity. I don’t know if there is some kind of spiritual presence there, or if it just the energy millions of believers concentrated over centuries in tears, blood and prayers but even I was moved by the church.

When we had finished the tour my guide invited me back to his family shop for tea. I should have said no, but I went along and ended up buying two crosses – one of which is for Heather, and the other is for my mother neither of whom are at all religious, but I thought they would appreciate a cross from Bethleham. He tried to get to spend more money, and got increasing outrageous in his compliments in the process. I managed to leave without spending any more money, even though he said if he wasn’t already married he would want to marry me . . .

Next I visited the Milk Grotto Church where it is said to be a cave where Mary breastfed Jesus. Supposedly some of her milk spilled on the ground and turned the interior of the cave a milky white color. Inside the church there are letters from women who had fertility problems and visited the church asking for blessings. The women who wrote letters enclose pictures of their newborn babies and thanked the church for their babies. Of course, there aren’t any letters from women who visited the church but still don’t have babies . . .

I decided to walk back to the hotel, a pretty long walk, but I had time to kill so I meandered along the road and took some pictures. I stopped at a little place for lunch and while I was waiting for my lunch a man came over, introduced himself as a pastor, and asked if he could join me. Of course I said yes, so he sat and asked me where I was from . . . once he heard my name he asked if I Muslim or Christian. I answered this question the way I usually do: My father is Muslim and my mother is Christian and I was raised in both faiths. This gives people the opportunity to interpret as they wish and saves me a lot of hassle. His response was, “So no one in your family has accepted Jesus as their savior?” I sighed and replied that my mother was Christian, again, at which point he dropped it. After giving me his email address he said he had to leave for an appointment. As he was leaving he said that he would pray for me to quit smoking because it is not healthy for me. I suppose in a weird way it is comforting to know that people can be as obnoxious about their religion here as they are in America – it almost made me feel at home.

Went to the hotel, met Clara, and rode back Beit Henin with her. Now, I had no idea where Beit Henin is, but apparently it is the closest Jerusalem neighborhood to the Kalandia checkpoint. I thought she was just going to drop me somewhere on a bus route to Al-Quds, but she ended up driving me most of the way. It was a strange trip though . . . we stopped before the checkpoint leaving Beit Lehem and waited for about 10 minutes until a man pulled up in a shiny new truck (an oddity in the Occupied Territories). Apparently she was waiting for him and the talked for several minutes before he handed her a wad of cash. Then we left, heading for Beit Henin . . . got through the checkpoint without any trouble because she is Israeli-Arab and her car has Israeli tags. I didn’t even have to show my passport.

We got into Jerusalem, then we made some turns I didn’t recognize and pulled over on the side of the road and a man hopped in. He started giving Clara directions, and she handed him the wad of cash. We drove into East Jerusalem, down some narrow, twisty roads and eventually pulled over. The man we had picked up hopped out, met another man on the street and handed him the money. Our man came back to our car and the other man got into a waiting car and drove off. Hhhhhhmmmmmmmmm. Just a little sketchy.

They dropped me at the Beit Hanin checkpoint, and I walked over to the Israeli guard shack to show them my passport. I figured they wouldn’t care who was going into the West Bank, but, as usual, I was wrong. The soldier was speaking a combination of Arabic, Hebrew and English asking me lots of questions:
Why I wanted to go to the West Bank. I said I was visiting Ramallah.
He wanted to know why. I said why not?
He wanted to know where my family was – I said in New York.
Where was I from? New York.
Didn’t I have family in Ramallah (damn Arab name giving me trouble again). I said no. Why was I traveling by myself? I said why not.
Then we repeated all the questions. Twice.

Finally he let me through. I was starting to get nervous because it had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t let me back into the West Bank. I didn’t dare say that I was studying Arabic at Birzeit, so I just lied and hoped that he would let me through. I caught a cab for the 3 minute ride to Kalandia, and walked through that checkpoint without any trouble. No one was even checking passports. It took me less than half the time to return to Ramallah than it took to travel to Bethleham because I was in an Israeli car for the return trip

House of Meat, Beit Lehem, Bethleham

In my first entry in this journal, I wrote about R, the friend of my family who ended up traveling with me from Jordan into the West Bank. R is Palestinian, but he lives and works in Kuwait and he was heading into the West Bank for his wedding. After our day of travel, he invited me to his wedding in Bethleham on Sept. 8 – of course it was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. Now, I wasn’t planning on attending any formal events during my time here, so on Wed I had to find something appropriate to wear to this wedding – that is a story in itself . . . So Thursday afternoon I began my travel to Beit Lehem. Now, Beit Lehem is not very far from Ramallah, but traveling in the West Bank is always an ordeal – the wedding was scheduled to start at 6pm (but apparently everyone shows up late) and I was told it could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes to travel to Beit Lehem depending on checkpoints etc . . . so I left Birzeit at 2:30 in the afternoon figuring that would give me plenty of time to get to Beit Lehem, find a hotel, and head to the wedding. Silly foreigner.

Traveling around here is a little complicated. First I caught a service (minivan that runs a regular route and much cheaper than a private taxi) to downtown Ramallah, then I walked a little ways down Jerusalem Road to find another service that would take me to the Kalandia checkpoint. Because I have an American passport, I was told it would be faster the travel though Jerusalem than to travel through the West Bank. Now, every Palestinian that I’ve met on this trip so far has been incredibly friendly and helpful, but this service driver was having a very bad day. When I opened the service door I hesitated because the way into the far back seat was blocked by a very large woman. So, the driver starts yelling at me in Arabic – I didn’t catch the words, but the gist of it was hurry up, stupid forgeiner. So I clamber into the back seat and the driver takes off, still muttering to himself.

Now, I’d never walked through the Kalandia checkpoint before. On my way into the West Bank, I’d been in a private taxi with Israeli tags, so we were able to just drive through without any difficulty. However, Palestinian vehicles are not allowed into Jerusalem, so I knew that I had to get out of the service at the checkpoint, walk across, and pick up another transport. Problem was, I wasn’t sure exactly where I was supposed to get off . . . So, when the last person climbed out of the service except for me, I asked the driver if this was where I was supposed to get out (no checkpoint in sight, mind you) and he starts yelling at me again, so I took that as my signal to exit, quickly.

Still not quite sure what I was doing, I just followed the other people on foot until I arrived at the Kalandia checkpoint, which is one of the ugliest manmade structures I’ve ever seen. When you walk up to it, there are four of five lines, separated by metal railings – kind of like amusement park ride lines, but not as nice. The men and women wait in separate lines, and the women move through much faster. So, when my turn came, I gave the Israeli soldier sitting behind his desk my passport and they let me through without any a trouble. I had to cut across the men’s line to follow the path through the checkpoint, then I hesitated because it looked like people were going in two different directions and I wasn’t sure which one I wanted.

A chubby Israeli soldier walks up to me, and seeing my American passport, says to me very politely while holding his large machine gun, “Do you need any help miss?” I pointed down what looked like a rat race path and asked him if that was the way I was supposed to go. He replied, still very polite, “Yes. Do you mind if I ask you what you were doing inside?”

Inside. Inside what? Hell? I just replied that I was studying and headed off towards the buses. At this point I needed to find the bus that would take into Jerusalem and then drop me at the bus station where I would pick up another service to Beit Lehem. Luckily, the first bus I picked was the right one, and the driver was very nice when I asked him in my terrible Arabic if I was headed in the right direction. So, I settled into my seat next to a young boy and we started driving. We reached another check point and the soldiers told the bus driver to pull over, then two soldiers came on board and collected all of the passenger’s passports. So we sat there for about 20 minutes while the soldiers cleared everyone’s travel papers. From my seat, I could see the soldiers kiosk, and they seemed to be doing a lot of laughing and not much else. Eventually, one of the soldier’s came back and then everyone had to sort through the pile of IDs to make sure everyone had theirs before we continued our travels.

As the bus drove through Jerusalem I was shocked by how different it looks from the West Bank. I’ve only been here for about a week, but I’ve already become accustomed to my new environment. It seemed very strange to drive past the ritzy Zion Hotel and to see all the men wearing shorts, women in sleeveless tops, and all the green grass. The West Bank sits on a resevior of water, but the Israeli’s control it, so there are water shortages in the West Bank every summer. In fact, we have to be very careful about the amount of water that we use in our apartment . . .

I arrived at the Jerusalem bus station and the driver explained to me where to find the service to Beit Lehem, which was fairly simple. The drive to Beit Lehem from Jerusalem is fairly short, and unenventful until we reached the checkpoint outside of Beit Lehem. Here, everyone had to climb off the bus because the road was closed and climb down a steep, dangerous path and stoop under a railing to get to the path to the checkpoint. There is a steep drop over the other side, and I was worried about the woman in front of me wearing heels and the little old woman who barely made it under the railing. I followed the path and ended up at a semi-permanent looking checkpoint. Apparently everyone lines up at the edge of the checkpoint and one by one people approach the desk with the soldiers to get permission to enter Beit Lehem. While I was waiting, I watched the soldiers yelling at the people to hurry up and to have their papers out and ready – I think that is what they were saying anyway, since they were speaking in Hebrew. When my turn came, I handed them my American passport and they got very excited. They were commenting on my name (which is Arabic) and decided that they had to call it in and have it checked out. So, I stood there for about 5 minutes while the line of Palestinians behind me continued to grow and the soldiers all sat around waiting for a response regarding my passport. Finally, I asked the soldier if she would like me to step aside so that the other people waiting to could pass. She looked surprised for a moment, and then said, “Oh. Well, I guess you could.”
So I moved, and the soldiers called for the Palestinians to come all together and to have their papers out. I sat on a bench and they offered me coffee or tea while I waited, which I refused. The woman soldier started yelling at one of the women that her papers were fake, and that she wouldn’t be able to enter Beit Lehem with them next time, and that the woman obviously knew they were fake. Then they started making fun of an older woman who was walking slowly and started yelling at her to hurry up.

After about 40 minutes they called me up to say that my passport had been cleared. They were very polite, and the woman soldier apologized and said they just needed to make sure that I was not one of the people who shouldn’t be allowed into Beit Lehem. The difference in the way the soldiers treated me compared to the Palestinians was horrendous. They acted as if the Palestinians weren’t even people, while I was one of them, just because of a passport. I can’t even describe how I felt when I walked out of the checkpoint – I guess a combination of angry, frustrated and relieved that I had been allowed in. Then I got my first look of the Wall in around Beit Lehem. It is heartbreakingly enormous and anyone who calls this a security fence is deluding themselves. The Israeli’s are build enormous ghettos, with American help. In fact, someone had spray painted, “American money, Israeli apartheid” on the wall, and I couldn’t have agreed more. It took me three hours to travel from Ramallah from Beit Lehem, a trip that would take 20 minutes without the checkpoints and if all the roads were accessible.

After I walked through the gap in the wall I asked for directions to the hotel where the wedding was being held. I only had about an hour before I was supposed to be there, but I knew that it was close enough to walk and I was already dirty and sweaty from traveling so I figured I might as well get a look at the city. I stopped in a small store to ask for directions, and the owner insisted on giving me a ride, which was very kind of him. So we talked in Arabic, and I tried to express how sorry I was for the situation in Bethleham and how terrible I thought the wall was. When we pulled up to the hotel I laughed out loud because it was a five star hotel, not something I was expecting after all the poverty I’ve seen in the West Bank, and certainly not a place I could afford to stay. I asked the man if he knew the name of a place that was cheaper where I could stay, thinking I’d hail a taxi and just be late to the wedding. Not only did he insist on driving me to the Beit Lehem hotel, but he also came inside with me and negotiated the price with the man at the desk . . . It is amazing how warm and hospitable the Palestinian people are considering the reality of the lives they live . . .

Once everything was settled at the hotel reception I ran up to my room and hopped into the shower, ironed my dress which had stuffed in my backpack for the last 4 hours and got ready to head to the wedding. I knew the wedding was Muslim, so I had been very careful about picking a dress that wasn’t low cut or too short. It was sleeveless, but I found a nice scarf in Ramallah to cover my arms . . . to be honest I was very proud of myself for finding such an acceptable outfit on short notice.

After putting on some makeup, I looked in the mirror to make sure I looked okay and noticed a big problem. The dress was white with a pink and tan floral design on it, and it had a slip built in underneath – but it was still transparent. I had even thought to bring white panties so that they wouldn’t show . . . but you could quit clearly see the outline of my underclothes . . . Big Problem. The only clothes that I had with me were the t-shirt and jeans that I had traveled in, some pjs and this dress. I figured the shawl would cover the top of my dress, but there wasn’t much I could do about the bottom. So, I did the only thing I could . . . I went to my first Mulsim wedding as an adult without any panties.

I arrived at the hotel just as the wedding party was arriving. R was wearing a tux, and his bride looked beautiful in a long white strapless wedding gown. Someoen was beating a drum and everyone was clapping so I joined in. R walked into the hotel, took his grandmother’s hand and started dancing with her, then his mother joined in – I couldn’t see where the bride had gone at that point. Then the wedding party moved towards the banquet hall with the guests trailing behind and clapping. Next, R and his bride disappeared to take pictures and everyone else entered the banquet hall. Now this was the most awkward part of the evening because I had no idea what the etiquette was for this sort of wedding, plus the language barrier, and the only person that I new at the wedding was the groom – and I was feeling very self conscious about the fact that I wasn’t properly dressed (no panties). So I walked over to a table with a youngish women and tried to explain that I was a friend of R’s from America and that I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to sit. She said I was in the right place (well I had already figured that part out) so I asked her if I could sit at her table where there were several empty seats, but she said it would be better if I found a different place.

So, I smiled and said thank you, took a deep breath and tried another table with some youngish looking girls, and this time I was more successful. Turns out I’d found one of R’s cousins who was very, very nice and invited me to sit with her and basically took me under her wing for the rest of the evening. After an awkward half-hour R and his bride appeared, and then the dancing began. It is funny how similar and different this wedding was to an American wedding. All of the same elements were present: bride in white, wedding party, bride’s and groom’s family seated separately, dancing, food and of course the wedding cake – and yet it was so different. The dancing was more enthusiastic – some of the men, including the groom, climbed onto the shoulders of other men and danced from up there. At one point the bride was lifted up on a chair to dance with R above the crowd. There was dubkeh (traditional Palestinian dance) and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

The dancing lasted for about two hours, followed by food, then more dancing and cake. The bride and groom danced all night and the men at the wedding performed some pretty impressive dance moves. Another big difference was that the men all danced together very comfortably, whereas at home they would be concerned about looking gay. Overall I had a lovely time and was invited to several peoples homes, and given lots of phone numbers. It was great practice for my Arabic, although it only reminded me that I have a long way to go before I will truly be conversational in colloquial Arabic. I was invited to stay the night with several people, but I had already checking into and paid for my hotel (thank goodness) I had a headache from trying to speak and understand the Arabic and desperately wanted a cigarette by the end.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Turkish Coffee etc . . .

We found some Turkish coffee in our flat that had been left by the last inhabitants, so today M and I invited some of the other students over for coffee and biscuits. Luckily, the cupboard also contained the special metal coffee pot with the long handle and lots of Turkish coffee cups. Our coffee party was after we had registered for our courses and ran some errands/ explored Ramallah a little. I didn’t know how to prepare the coffee, but one of the other students, B, had done it a couple of times, so we decided to give it a whirl. I guess the trick is you boil the water first, then remove the pot from the heat and add in the coffee. Then you return the coffee to the burner and let it boil and remove it from the heat 3 times. Of course, we weren’t exactly sure how old the coffee was or how much to add to the water, so it was interesting. It came out pretty well, if a little weak.

After our coffee we met up with some other students for a tour of the village Birzeit, where we are living. I’ve been here for a couple days and thought I’d pretty much seen everything, but I was very, very wrong. Apparently the part of the village that I live in is the new part, but the old village is fascinating. Some of the houses are hundreds of years old, although most of them are now abandoned and falling apart. I guess the town is named Beir Zeit (Zeit = olive, Bier =well) because the homes in the old village have wells inside that they used to store olive oil. The town also has four churches . . . the biggest one is the Catholic Church, and I guess it is the biggest one in the Ramallah area, although one of our guides tried to claim that it was the biggest in all of Palestine – I guess his father helped build it . . . There is also a Greek Orthodox Church, and I can’t recall now if the third was Presbyterian or Protestant; this is an example of my glaring ignorance regarding the history of Christianity. Anyway, it was really interesting and I can’t wait to go back with my camera. Our guide said that Birzeit was founded by five tribes, three of which were Christian and other two were Muslim. The land is still owned by the families, but now they live in the newer part of the village. We also saw the original Birzeit University building, where it began as a secondary school before growing into one of the biggest universities in Palestine.

During our walk, our guide pointed out the Israeli settlement that is closest to Birzeit as well as the refugee camp that is right below it (most settlements are built on hills). He also showed us where the checkpoint is on the only road that leads north to Nablus and Jenin. It isn’t actually the only road, but the Israeli’s have closed the others for “security” or for settlement roads. He said the soldiers recently acquired (stole) more land because they are planning to build a permanent checkpoint on the road. We also stopped by the student center, which is a place where students can go to do work. There is a small coffee shop inside and a couple of computers with internet connection, and I think they’re free, so I will have to go back and investigate some more. Although since I’m on a government fellowship, I feel like I should spend the money in the town and maybe help out the economy a little since so much of US money goes to guns, military training, and general support for the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces, which seems more accurate than Israeli Defense Forces). Most of the walls and building here have graffiti, a lot of which is politically motivated. One that stood out to me was a trash can where some kids had spray painted “Sharon” in big red Arabic script. We also saw the Women’s Clinic, which was open 24 hours for a while, but has run out of funding so is now open sporadically. I’d like to check it out and see what kind of services they offer and if they need any volunteers.

On the surface Birzeit and Ramallah seem like they are doing pretty well, but you don’t have to dig very far to find problems. There is a refugee camp that is basically a part of the village – but it is not technically a refugee camp because the homes were not built by the UN or with UN funding. I guess one of the local churches donated the land, but now they want it back to expand, but the refugees aren’t moving, so this could become a problem. There are a lot of businesses for a small town, and it seems busy since all northward traveling traffic has to pass through Birzeit, but there are a lot of young men without jobs and a lot of tension in the air. I suspect that I will find a very different reality when I travel to Bethlemham, Hebron, Nablus and Jenin; all places that have been hit hard by the occupation and the Wall.

Then we went for dinner at the local restaurant that serves alcohol, where the owner already knows my name, and apparently all the service staff do as well. I’ve only been there one other time, which means word has gotten out that there is an Arab girl in the International Student Program . . . Oh well, I hope the gossip is at least interesting.

Tomorrow my Arabic classes start. I have the afternoon free and since I now have an adapter and have charged my camera battery, hopefully tomorrow I will head back into the old village and take some pictures.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Settling In

I'm in an internet cafe right now on Main St. in Ramallah. There is a nice little cafe near my apartment in Birzeit, but the connection was a little sketchy last night, so I decided to come here today instead.

Ramallah is very different from what I had anticipated. There are a lot more shops with English signs, western food, and near western prices than I expected to find -- not to mention that I didn't budget for living in an expensive place . . . The streets downtown are crowded with people going about their business and you have the mix of cars and pedestrians in the streets that I've learned is normal from my time living in Cairo.

Yesterday some volunteers from Birzeit University took the international students on a walking tour of the city, pointing out useful things like where the best money exchange places are and where to buy cell phones, but they also showed us where the theatre is and some of the cultural centers. You can see that there has been a lot of rebuilding in the city here, there are shiny white new buildings in lots of places, but there is an air of incompleteness here . . . a feeling like people are waiting before they commit to truly investing -- or maybe I am simply projecting my own feelings onto the city. For example, the water fountains that don't have water because of the water shortage; the library that is closed for renovations; the lighthouse square without a lighthouse. My favorite is the 4 lions in the center of the Manara (center of the city) which represent 4 old families from Ramallah. According to my young guide, these families have long since left Palestine for America or better places.

In fact, our guide Ibrahim, told us that most people today are just trying to get out . . . he didn't specify where but the did say that life would be better anywhere than it is here. He talked about his friends who have finished their education but can't find jobs and about how he hopes to go to America for graduate school and then we wants to work on Wall Street. He said he didn't care how long it took, or how hard he had to work, but he would find a way out.

This morning I was at the school to pay my registration fee (BTW I placed in level 3 Arabic, yay!) and I met with another volunteer Mohammed, who said very similar things about just wanting to leave the West Bank but that it is too difficult to find a way out . . .

On a different note, I learned from our program director that Israel has refused to give Birzeit University permission to set up wireless internet connections because, "it could be used for terrorist activities." What total nonsense.

All for now, but certainly more soon.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Travel and Arrival

After months of planning and worry and excitement I have finally arrived in Birzeit! I’m sharing a flat with a very nice, very British woman named M, who worked with ISM last summer and is learning Arabic because of her politics and also because she has a half-Palestinian grandson. In other words, she is super-cool.

My travels across the Allenby Bridge were a bit nerve-wracking, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself . . . let me back up. I arrived at the Amman airport in Jordan around 12 am on September 2. I was supposed to arrive much earlier, but Jordan Royal Air decided to cancel the 5:30 flight and put everyone on a 9pm flight, which didn’t actually leave until about 10:40. I was traveling with my father, thankfully, because when we arrived in Amman, my bags didn’t come out on the luggage conveyor belt. Apparently they were headed to Cairo – now, I could have handled this problem in Arabic, but it would have taken me quite a bit longer than it took him, and my bags may well have been on their way to visit the pyramids by the time I made myself understood. Luckily, we were able to get them back before the other plane took off.

While we were waiting for my bags, my father bumped into a friend of the family, actually a good friend of two of my cousins who are about my age. Ironically, he was also traveling to Jerusalem that day, and he had made the trip several times before, so we agreed to travel together. This was a big relief for my father, and I have to admit I was pleased to have a travel companion. By the time we had sorted out all of our travel plans, and I had been reunited with my bags it was pretty late. I managed to get about 3.5 hours of sleep before it was time to get up and meet R. We met R at our hotel (The Four Seasons) and ate breakfast, then drove to the bridge with my father and a friend of his. I would just like to say that the women’s bathroom across from the dining room in the Four Seasons is larger than my entire apartment in Silver Spring.

When we reached the Allenby Bridge, instead of going through the main gate R insisted that we drive to the second, VIP gate which is apparently for people with European/American passports (he is Palestinian but has a Canadian passport). Once we arrived, he made all the arrangements, which involved a lot of pushing and shoving, a little baksheesh, and an $80 VIP fee (which I refused to pay, but my father insisted I stay with R, so he coughed up the cash). After about 1.5 hours we were herded into a small van and we drove across the border. We had to stop at three different checkpoints on the 10 minute drive, each time the driver got out with our passports, and had to be cleared to continue. When we arrived at the border station in Israel, R and I were pulled aside and separated, and our small bags were taken from us (the big ones had already been sent off in a different direction. This made me nervous because I had a lot of money in my bag, but I just kept my mouth shut and waited.

R and I had already prepared our story. I was traveling with him because he was getting married and I was an old friend (he actually is getting married), we had met in 1997 while he was a student at McGill, blah blah blah. I was purposefully not mentioning studying at Birzeit, because I’d been warned by my program they might not let me in if they knew why I was visiting Israel. To justify my desire for the 3 month visa, I said after the wedding I wanted to spend time visiting the Holy Land, the beaches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, etc . . .

The questioning was pretty intense, and I was a little shaky by the end of it because they had asked me twice if I had another passport, and of course my Kuwaiti passport was hidden in my money belt in my jeans, but I did not share that information. Then we were escorted to the VIP lounge where we sat for about 2.5 or 3 hours, and were questioned again. In the end I got my three month visa, but I was pretty exhausted by this point. They stamped our passports (my piece of paper) then sent us into a very large room where everyone’s luggage had been chaotically thrown around. It took me about 10 minutes to find my stuff, but it was all there. Next we caught a cab into Jerusalem and dropped R off at his fiance’s family’s house, then I headed to the Kalandia checkpoint. Since it wasn’t too busy, and I was really tired, I stayed with the cab all the way to Ramallah and was dropped off at my hotel without any trouble.

The cab driver was very nice, and at one point he even pulled over so that I could get some beautiful pictures of Al-Quds. When we arrived at the hotel he gave me his number and told me to call him if I needed any help. . . I thanked him and took the number, but I don’t think I’ll be using it. Once at the hotel I called G and B who are both friends from previous Arabic courses and we agreed to meet for dinner. The hotel in Ramallah was certainly a far cry from the Four Seasons, but I could hear kids playing outside my window and there was a nice breeze, so I was happy. I was starving by the time I arrived, so I asked the man who showed me my room if there was a place nearby where I could get some food, but he insisted or ordering a pizza to be delivered for me. Turns out, they only deliver large pizzas, so I sat downstairs and ate my strange Palestinian pizza with corn on it, and made the employees eat with me. This was cool because I was able to practice my Arabic with them, and I did pretty well. I guess I did learn a thing or two this summer.

I met G and B, and we bumped in a woman in the lobby who was also in our program, M, who is now my roommate. So we all went out and grabbed some food, drank some local beer called Taybeh (which is much better than the Egyptian beer) and talked for a while. While we were sitting out in the garden behind the restaurant, shooting started. No one around us seemed concerned and one of the waiters came over and told us people were celebrating a wedding . . . From my room that night I could hear the Ramallah PA marching in the streets chanting Allahu Akbar while I was getting ready for bed.

Had my orientation at Birzeit the next day, and things look like they are fairly well organized. There are about 30 people in our program . . . 6 Germans, 4 Americans, and a interesting mix of other nationalities. Orientation took up most of the day and included a tour of the campus, which is very nice, and then we were picked up by our respective landlords. My landlord is very nice, and the apartment in much bigger than I expected – only M and I, each with a separate room, a nice big kitchen and a sitting area. I had requested to share a room, and this is a little above my budget, but I think I can swing it without too much trouble. We are in the village of Birzeit and very close to where the service buses pick up for the University or for Ramallah.

After settling in a little, M and I headed to a restaurant in town to meet up with some other students from the program. I’ve met three other Peace Studies students, there are quite a few journalists/ journalism students and a bunch of International Relations students. While we were at the restaurant last night some soldiers showed up in town and were driving around, so I guess the locals youths all ran out and started throwing stones at them. All the men in the restaurant ran outside to see what would happen, but I guess nothing did, so that was the end of that.

Today I went grocery shopping and cleaned up the apartment . . . I like sharing with M but I could do without the other roommates. So far I’ve killed about 6 spiders and a couple of bugs I couldn’t name. Tomorrow I have my language placement testing, then classes start Tuesday.