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.


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