Friday, November 5, 2010

A work in progress...

Engineers are regretting the decisions made by their predecessors regarding New Orleans and water. New Orleans is afraid of water, so we built levees that separate us from it. Now, because of the way rivers move and silt deposits and landscapes erode, the banks are growing higher and soon the water will top the levees again. To protect ourselves, we need to build the levees higher and higher. The Dutch don't have this problem. They designed a system of waterways that moves throughout the city and keeps the soil wet and stable, while our soil dries out and sinks. This is why I fall into potholes in Gert Town. And Uptown. Nature just don't care.


I've been biking from Uptown to Mid-City a lot. On Sundays I bike to church, Mondays I bike to Boys Hope to tutor, and Wednesdays I bike back to church for choir rehearsal. Then there's the odd babysitting gig or visit to the bayou to see Ali, who is helping me prepare for my trip to the West Bank. Man thalik-who is that? taqaata-intersection. This is all very useful stuff.

Anyways, I used to bike around Gert Town. People tell me to avoid it, even though I spent every day there for two months painting houses on Colapissa Street. That never gets old. It's an odd thought, in retrospect, that I worked in Gert Town and the Lower Ninth Ward and Hollygrove during the day with the unconscious assumption that after nightfall those places were uncrossable, kind of like in a zombie apocalypse. Like the people would just...change.

After a few meandering trips around the edge of Gert Town (and through harrowing traffic at Earhart and what used to resemble a street), I decided to venture in and try various combinations of Pine, Fig, Colapissa, and Broadway. Good Lord, it's so much easier. A man whose house I painted sits on his porch every evening and I've been stopping to say hi ("yeah, I'm not painting anymore, teaching Uptown now...) and occassionally I see Samuel, the 8-year-old who grew incredibly attached to one of my volunteer groups last spring. He calls me Isabella. Last time I saw him, he told me he was a 4th grader at Lafayette, and even though I jokingly (sort of) told him to apply to my middle school, I was happy that he had the opportunity to attend such a reputable charter school. And I was surprised. It didn't fit my image of Samuel, who runs around his unfinished house, half-dressed, through mud, garbage and rooster poop. I makes me wonder where my kids live when they aren't transitioning in single-file in khakis and collared shirts. Last week Mayor Landrieu asked our assembly how many students lived in the East, and around half raised their hand. I didn't realize so many of them lived that far away...

Every time I bike through Gert Town, I find myself in the middle of a loud, personal conversation between neighbors on porches yelling at each other from across the street. I try to smile and nod hello without falling into a pothole, but I want to step it up, maybe yell "good evening!" or something, make some conversation….after all, it’s the New Orleans thing to do. Sometimes I bike past a barbeque joint that smells absolutely amazing. Folks are eating, partying, dancing, grilling, enjoying the evening New Orleans-style. I know I would get some looks, but I also know I'd be welcomed there.

New Orleans and Palestine are two different worlds, and I expect that my life is going to be drastically different next year, but the way I feel about these two places is jarringly similar. If you fear another culture, you will make choices, however conscious, that separate you from it. At a certain point, you have to realize that the root of the problem is that you don't have any friends from Gert Town, or Palestine.

There's an Apartheid Wall in Palestine. It looks pretty and tiled on the Israeli side, like a highway separator, but it's a stack of concrete blocks on the Palestinian side. Thousands of Palestinians have lived in view of this wall and thought "This is the reason my land was stolen….my olive trees bulldozed….my family cut off from our neighbors. This is why my life is hell."

In Arabic it’s called hafrada, separation. One culture separates itself from another, more “hostile” culture to give its members the freedom to go about their lives unhindered, and between their classes, jobs, and pilates sessions, they read headlines that keep their fear at a low simmer.

This happens within New Orleans, between the United States and the Muslim world, between Israel and Palestine. The dangerous people need to be kept separate, so the money goes to intelligence and security. Intelligence is what they need to catch the scary people. The scary black people. The scary Muslims. The scary Palestinians.

No offense, but if you are afraid of Palestinians, you are a dumbshit.

A few weeks ago my friend and neighbor was robbed and beaten up in front of his house. I'm being told to be careful because there have been incidences of sexual assault around the Tulane area. Oh, you bike through Gert Town at night? I feel more at ease biking through Gert Town than I do in my Uptown neighborhood. Because the scary people are crossing over. They’re coming to my neighborhood and robbing my friends. They’re coming to my country and crashing planes into my buildings. Why aren’t they in school? Why aren’t they at work? I thought separation was a good idea! Give us more money for troops! More guards for our gated communities!

I was biking down Broadway at night for the first time and to my amusement, the first thought that crossed my mind was voiced by a Scottish hobbit from The Two Towers:

"The closer we are to danger, the further we are from harm.”

Now, on a personal level this isn’t really true. It's not for my own safety that I moved to New Orleans, or bike through whatever neighborhood I please, or plan to spend a year in a territory occupied by soldiers who are young, armed, and paranoid. But this is a trend I feel strongly about perpetuating. We need to cross over, for everyone's safety.

This weekend Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni are coming to New Orleans to speak at this year’s General Assembly. I perused the program on-line and found a lot of speakers on topics like the importance of community service in Judaism, and one called “Off the Record: Talking about Israel.” I’d love to go to some of these workshops, but it costs upwards of $600 dollars to register. eeeesh.

Unfortunately, the program includes countless lectures with names like “Deligitimizers of Israel: The Jewish Community Responds.” It should instead be named “The Scary People Behind the Wall and How We Can Separate Them Further."

Don't make war. Don't even make levees. Make Dutch-style waterways.


New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity will be protesting in front of the General Assembly tomorrow. More updates to come.