Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Weekend Update #4

Last weekend I had to go to Jordan to renew my Israeli visa. I went to Tubas to find a Service to Jericho, which people told me ran every hour. Not correct! The Service that showed up was empty, and the driver was calling people, trying to get more passengers. We ended up sitting outside his house, and he told me, the other person, they want to go in 30 minutes. ooooook. I'll wait.
"You want to drink something? Eat?"
".....umm, sure."
My taxi driver brought me up to his apartment, where his mother served me mansaf and salad and olives and cola and tea and coffee. His father and brother also came and sat on the couches, but they mostly just sat there and joked about Altayeb's foreign guest. His brother had studied at Arab-American University, so his English was the strongest. I attempted conversation in Arabic. They invited me to come again, his mother would teach me to make makloubeh, and we would be great friends. I didn't really see that happening, but I left stuffed and happy.
The woman we picked up on the way out of town was a free-lance trainer for women starting businesses in the West Bank. She was awesome. I asked her about jobs in Palestine, and she suggested She also knew an Italian family in Ramallah that needed a nanny for their kids. I gave her my number. The idea of having any job sounded exciting, and I can't afford to be choosy at this point, but I'm still holding out for something fulfilling. Lucrative and fulfilling. Ha!
I saw the Jordan Valley for the first time, since I'd made the last journey at night. It was beautiful. It reminded me of Wenatchee, Washington at times, the dry, scrubby hills and lush valleys. After hearing so many depressing things about camps and settlements, I could see how much growing was being done by Palestinians and it was uplifting. I took a lot of videos out of the window. When we stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, everyone started getting out. Altayeb told me, "no, you stay." I asked, "leish?" Our woman friend said, "because you're not Palestinian." They took their bags and walked through the revolving doors to the side of the road. Altayeb and I drove up to the soldiers, and I showed them my passport. We waited for the others, and I took pictures of the Hebrew signs that pointed to the settlements up the hill. I can't see these checkpoints and junctions ever being dismantled, if their purpose is to protect the settlements...
We kept going on to Jericho. We passed farms and settlements, and I tried to guess which crops were Palestinian and which were Israeli. The other passengers affirmed, they were mostly Israeli. I saw a warehouse that said "Carmel." Aha, the Carmel of Carmel-Agrexco.

“Carmel Agrexco-established in 1956, is Israel’s largest exporter of agricultural produce, with the European Union one of its major markets. Today, the Carmel label markets 350,000 tons of fresh produce and flowers exported around the world, yielding an annual turnover of $580 million.”
-Carmel website

They supply to British supermarkets, mostly, but their depot in England has been shut down several times because of protestors. Here’s a link to a funny protest in Italy.

Anyways, we got to the Palestinian Authority exit terminal, and I lost the nice lady I was with, but I found a British guy named Joe. We were escorted together as the only foreigners, and after our passports were checked we caught a shared taxi to Amman. Joe studied Arabic at Birzeit University, and was also doing the “visa run.” He’d been to Palestine a few times before, and once with his family. His mother was also visiting in November. I was curious about living the modern life in Ramallah. Joe was able to go out on the weekends, but he shared an apartment with a Palestinian, who didn’t help him much with his Arabic because he always wanted to speak English. I asked him what his excuse was for the Israeli border, and he said he told the truth. It got him through the Tel Aviv airport. And the worst thing, he said, is getting caught lying. It’s true, but I think Allenby is tougher. No question, they will make him feel like shit for being interested in Arabic and Palestinians. I have a strong desire to tell the truth, it feels like the courageous thing to do, but it’s not worth getting my visa rejected. My friend was rejected after a year of teaching art in Nablus and some time in Gaza, and it’s so sad to think of how much good work could have been done by now if people like us weren’t seen as security threats. Jesus, she was an art teacher…

Joe got dropped off in Shmeisani, where the CIEE abroad students live in apartments, and where my friends and I would go out on the weekends in spring of 08. By that time I realized my first contact was out of town, and my second (Hamude, of the Deir Jareer Mubaraks) was at a family reunion and couldn’t host any guests. I realized that I’d been really stupid. I was standing on a sidewalk in Amman, waiting for a taxi, deciding whether or not to surprise my host family from three years ago, or see if a taxi driver understood the word for “hostel.” Maybe I could check into that one hotel with Club Nai in the basement, where we would go to for all-you-can-eat sushi. What was the name of that hotel?

I finally hailed a taxi, and told him “Dahit al-Rashid.” He nodded.
“Moktar mall.” He nodded.
“Funduq al-Quds.” Jerusalem Hotel. He nodded.
Yamin hun. Right here.
Jame al-rawda. Al-rawda mosque.
Hun quais. Here is good.

I walked by the mosque, wondering if Baba was praying there right now. There were a bunch of kids playing by the grocery store outside the apartment, and I recognized the first kid immediately. It was Karim, my host nephew from three years ago. He was five now, and way bigger, but it was him! I wanted to say something, but I felt like a creepy old lady. I walked into the elevator, tried the second floor. Nope, not this one. Tried the third floor. I think this is the door, yes, it has the star and crescent light…I rang the doorbell, and stood there awkwardly. If they weren’t busy tonight, they would feed me and likely ask me to stay over. If it wasn’t a good night, I’d visit for a bit and go find a hotel. Their maid answered the door. Then she closed the door. 30 seconds. Mama opened it a crack. 5 seconds. Her eyes went wide.
She hugged and kissed me. Her daughter Ola had told them I’d be in Amman in the next couple weeks, but I hadn’t specified what day. She sat me down in the TV room, which overlooks Amman, and we caught up. Her mother was on the couch, and she remembered me. We talked about Palestine, she showed me around the house, which had a lot of new furniture, and she got the maid to go fetch Karim. He came up and didn’t seem to remember me, but after a few minutes of kicking a ball around he got up the nerve to shake my hand.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Wow, he speaks more English than my teenaged students. He showed me his room, and his PSP. His favorite game was WWF wrestling. He explained the rules to me in English. I wish I’d recorded that conversation, and how he pronounced Undertaker. Like Undarrtakarr. It was great. Then he demonstrated the People’s Elbow on his stuffed rabbit.
“You do this with your friends?!”
“Yes!!” he exclaimed with a huge grin.

We went back downstairs to Mama. She had the maid bring us tea. I thought I remembered this maid, but the family had gone through three maids while I was there for three months. They were all from Malaysia or Sri Lanka, like most of the domestic servants in Jordan. The Qawasmi’s were a good family, but I was always sad for the girls. One afternoon I remember Al Jazeera was doing a report on domestic servants from Sri Lanka and our maid sat down and watched it with me, following the language of the interviews that were dubbed over. I think she recognized some of the places. I realized how little freedom she had. But a few days later, we had a new maid. I never knew what happened.
Ola came home from work at the Arab Bank. She and I ate dinner together, rice and meat and vegetables and salad. Mama is a great cook. They kept raving about the chocolate bundt cake I’d made, but Mama served us two desserts, one an Arabic sweet like cold rice pudding that you drizzle with syrup, and the other a layered chocolate custard cake. It was so good. I had two pieces. Then of course, we drank Nescafe. At that point, Ola’s brother was home. I’d never met him, while I lived there he was living in Belfast with his wife and daughter. We talked and told riddles and ate and drank coffee and a few times I paused and thought, I am in complete bliss right now. They laughed about how I came home early from my desert homestay because I couldn’t stand living there for four days, and how Karim kept asking for “Jessi” after I left. They still called me by my first name. Ola’s brother went to get a movie, he wanted The Hangover 2, and Morgan Ahmad Morgan for me, but he couldn’t find either, so he bought a bunch of Egyptian movies. They tried for a while to turn on subtitles, but the pirated movies didn’t have them, so after much apologizing, we settled down and watched Asal Aswad, Black Honey, a comedy starring Ahmad Helmi about an Egyptian-American who wants to experience Egypt for a while. He leaves his American passport at home, but gets treated like crap when he uses his Egyptian passport. He sends for his American passport, then gets beat up by anti-American protestors. It was pretty slapstick, but it got serious in the second half, as he started to fall in love with Egypt.
He spoke a lot of Arabeezi. It was pretty easy for me to follow along.
I slept in Ola’s bed, and Ola slept with her grandmother. I kept thinking, holy cow, I lived here.
Karim woke me up at 6. For the next two hours I practiced my grumpy Arabic: “leeeeish? badain, ana tabana, ana mish jahez, nus sa3a, hamstash daqaeq, hams daqaeq…..” why? later, I’m tired, I’m not ready, half an hour, 15 minutes, 5 minutes….I could have locked the door, but I really didn’t think he’d keep coming in and poking me.
Mama and Sitti were up. They gave me Nescafe and a sandwich to take on the run. I’d messed up…Palestine was one hour earlier than Jordan because they switched to winter time early, but I’d still slept in. By the time I gotten to the border it was 11:40.

The crossing

My contact at Rebuilding Alliance was concerned that my re-entry would be rejected without references from Israel, so she contacted some people in Nazareth, and I planned to use my contact at the Christian institute in Jerusalem I'd supposedly been studying at for the last month. In the end though, I gave a few names of people I knew in Israel and the authorities were satisfied. My agent was nice, an Ethiopian guy, and I tried to chat with him about the States...he'd been to Kentucky. Which is close-ish to Louisiana....I was sweating.

"My grandparents gave me a month of study in Jerusalem, so now I want to travel and see my friends before my parents come to meet me at Christmas."

They didn't even ask me about the West Bank this time, just how I spent my last month, and they seemed suspicious about the 1-month visa I'd received (crossed out from 3). I knew that was because I'd told the last agent about my contact in Bethlehem. Can’t have foreigners running around with friends like that…

It was nauseating as usual, but this time was a little different. I'd just paid $94 for a V.I.P. shuttle ride to the Allenby bridge after having missed the last Friday bus from the Jordan border. I missed it by ten minutes. The officials on both sides could see I was verklempt and they tried to make it easy on me...they showed me to lounges with coffee and escorted me through the V.I.P metal detectors. The only benefit I could see was that I looked visibly annoyed, instead of nervous.

I got my 3-month visa to Israel, got escorted to the exit by my V.I.P chaperone, and no one seemed to care that I got on a bus to Jericho with all the Palestinians. I went through the terminal for the Palestinian Authority, which sadly doesn't have the authority to stamp my passport, and I recognized a police officer who looks like a friend from home. Haj Sami's nephew is in the Palestinian police force, training in Jericho. He should be home to Al Aqaba soon.

I missed the demonstration in Bil’in, and the Service ride to Ramallah took forever, since it dropped off everyone in their respective villages, including a family that was visiting for six weeks from Wisconsin. Big Palestinian population there, apparently. I got to Ramallah and immediately found a cab driver. His name was also Karim, meaning generous. He let me drive the cab to Bil’in. Ohhhhhh that was fun. But there are too many speed bumps in Palestine.

I got dropped off, and went straight to the office. Kefah was finishing the Arabic report for the demonstration. Lots of gas today. The demonstration was in solidarity with the prisoners on hunger strike, and in celebration of the olive harvest. Some of the villagers tried to climb over the wire fence around the wall to get to an olive that stood between, but they were fired at before they could reach it.

I finished the report, sent some e-mails, and went to find Haitham. His wife was on the front stoop-“I tell Haitham you’re here, I see you in the car, but he says, no, Morgan is not here…” She showed me the footage from the demo that Haitham had just finished, before he came in. We all talked, they made me a ridiculous amount of food, and Haitham walked me towards Khamis’ house. I was looking for Khamis or Tutu or Tala or Filasteen, whoever I found first. We found Khamis, and they walked me to Adeeb’s house. His two middle girls were in there, and the guys dropped me off. Ooook. I sat with the girls, tried to converse, then they decided to go to the wedding. So we went to a wedding. I stood in the wedding tent, where all the women were sitting and watching the girls and the bride dancing. This time, no one waved me up to dance. Thank goodness. I sat in the back while Wala chatted with her friends, and the song “Ma Fi Nom” came on, by Najwa Karam. Everyone loved this song. My students talked about it, people played it on their cell phones…I wished I knew the words. After a while, Farhat’s daughter Lulu found me and came and sat on my lap. Wala asked me, “you know this girl?” “Yes, Labiba.” She seemed satisfied and left with her friends. Farhat’s wife came up with baby Jude and sat next to me. We just sat…watching the wedding. After a while I had to pee so I went to the apartment behind the committee office, where I was staying that night. Kefah had given me the key. I laid down for a bit. The wedding was right outside, and I wondered how late the music would be playing. Then a song came on and I loved it. I whipped out my camera and took a 3-minutes video of the window. I could have it deciphered later. It was the same feeling I felt after I learned Ana Ayesh by Amr Diab, which sounds so cheesy now, because he’s a cheeseball, but to me, the key to a culture lies in its music, and if I can enjoy Arabic music, I can feel at home here. I wondered what kind of song it was. It sounded like it was from a musical. Maybe people thought it was stupid. I hoped not. It was my favorite.

I returned Farhat’s call and went to see his family back at their house. We ate some fruit, then went to visit his brother. They asked me all the regular questions, and we ate candy and played with the kids. Lulu sat on my lap. Then I got tired, and they dropped me off at the committee office. I surfed the net for a while, then passed out in the apartment. The next morning, I walked to the Service station, and saw Tutu playing on the way. In some ways I think Tutu is the queen of Bil’in. She’s the village darling. She’s got the power. But she was sheepish, and I just said “bashoofek usbu3 al-jay!” See you next week!
Her brother Ahmad recognized me at the station and shook my hand. We picked olives together last weekend. My friend Ahmad called me while I was in the Service. He was also coming to Ramallah. We met up and got some coffee and argheelah at a cafĂ© overlooking the city. Ahmad taught me more Arabic, and we talked about the demonstrations in Bil’in. He didn’t think the demonstrations accomplished anything. I disagreed. His village had had problems with settlers and soldiers and land confiscation, but they didn’t demonstrate. I didn’t understand how that was better. Why not demonstrate? I didn’t realize that other Palestinians might look down on Bil’in for its activism. Or think that it was counterproductive. But his village didn’t look directly at settlers, or stand in the path of the wall. It wasn’t a demonstrating community because it didn’t feel constrained to be, and a lot of its residents were able to live their lives and make money without their land. Not so in Bil’in. I learned that Ahmad had been involved in the DFLP in university, but now he wasn’t political. Two of his friends had been killed by Israeli soldiers, because the soldiers “thought they were involved in something bad.” I didn’t ask what it was, or if it was true. I was just amazed, that even someone so seemingly neutral, and unaffected, has a story. Everyone has a story. The argheela was making me light-headed, toja arasi.
I Serviced back to Al Aqaba. Again, a quiet homecoming. For the next few days people would ask me how Jordan was, or when I was going to Jordan. Already went, one day, back again. I have so much freedom.