Monday, February 27, 2012

A rude awakening

At 6am last Wednesday morning, my cell phone rang. It was Haj Sami: "Morgan, there are many soldiers in the village, I want you to take a picture!"

In my hazy state, I stumbled around the Guest House, finding the nearest pair of pants and brushing my hair. Like most girls I don't like to go out looking like a slob, but there's another reason here. If I look like a hippie or an anarchist or God forbid, throw on a kuffiyeh, my protection is gone. Those images have already been stamped. It was almost too much to think about at 6am, I doubted I looked like a terrorist sympathizer anyway. Whatever that means.

I grabbed my phone and camera and headed outside and toward the main street. My friend Mohammad, who runs the sewing cooperative above the kindergarten, saw me and immediately started explaining that the soldiers had been sleeping in the street when he drove to work in the morning. I walked around the mosque and sure enough, there were three army jeeps, full of soldiers. They were all konked out. A few of them stirred as I walked past them with my camera flipped open. I was afraid to point it in their faces.

Then Haj Sami called. He told me to go further down the road, because there were more soldiers by his sister's house. Alright. I started to walk down the hill. The air was frigid and I couldn't hear anything but goats and roosters--a typical morning in Al Aqaba. This was an hour that I rarely saw, unless I stayed up until dawn on my computer. It felt surreal. I didn't know what to expect. Then I realized what Haj Sami was talking about. A few hundred meters down, there was a big rumbling mass of green uniform. It looked like about 200 soldiers in full gear, shuffling around.

Shit, shit, shit. What do I do now? Do I just go up to them? I didn't feel like I had any choice, I had to to find out what they were going to do.

I assumed it was a demolition. It had happened twice last year--the soldiers came at dawn to stand guard while the bulldozers made work of two houses, two animal shelters, and two main roads (which were re-paved then bulldozed again).

I could see they were all starting to walk towards me, so I flipped my camera open and walked in their direction. They noticed me, undoubtedly, but they kept walking. No one told me to put my camera away. What a strange sight for them to see, a blonde girl on the street of an Arab village at 6:30am. And what a strange sight they were-with their helmets and poofy mesh hats...some of them were wearing face masks, some of them had antennas sticking out of their backpacks.

I paused in the middle of their crowd and leaned against the retaining wall. I was waiting for something, and sure enough it came.

"Are you with the EU?" one soldier asked me in an American accent.
"No. I'm here by myself."
Another soldier asked me, in an American accent, what I was doing here.
"There's a campaign to save the kindergarten from demolition, so I came here to teach. Now I'm making a website."
I told them I was from Seattle. The first soldier told me he was from LA. I told him there was a soldier from Tayasir checkpoint from LA. He asked me who. I told him his name was Jason. He thought for a, he didn't know him.

Then he asked me, "so like, which side are you on? I mean, it's kinda obvious..."
I don't remember what I said, something about just liking the village. Looking back on this whole experience I could've been more eloquent and really, firm. I was pissed off, but I found the dialogue intriguing.

I asked the soldier what they were doing here. He said, "training." I asked him if he realized their presence was really provocative, and he said, "yeah, sure, but we need to be ready."

I asked him if they considered this village a hostile place (which is laughable). He told me, "look, here's the deal. If an Arab wanders into Jerusalem, nothing happens. If I wander in Hebron and say, hey I'm a Jew..."
"In that outfit?"
"No, not in this outfit. 2001 (actually it was 2000), two Israelis got lost and ended up in Ramallah. They had their eyes gauged out, and they called their wives, and they were skinning them..."
"Oh my god, that was during the intifada."
"Yeah, yeah, just hear me out..."
"I know the does that justify you scaring these kids every day?"
"We don't scare them intentionally..."
"Look," said the other American. "If there was no checkpoint over there, eventually someone would take a truck full of explosives and then a restaurant would get blown up and everyone would be like, whoaaaa."
"Ok...." I was too tired for this. "Well, we have Jewish visitors here all the time, even Israelis."
"Yeah, but those are generally activists."
"No they're not, they're just regular citizens, from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv..."
"Yeah, but those people are generally against the state."
They started to move on. "ok, have fun teaching."

I asked them if they were demolishing anything today. They scoffed, "we don't demolish fact, it's like the other way around."

...I didn't follow up on that.

Haj Sami called me again. "Morgan! There are soldiers near the demolished road!" Alright. I kept walking down the hill, towards the entrance of the village. I saw soldiers climbing around the hill above some of the village houses. I filmed them and more soldiers walking up the hills towards me. This must have made for 300 soldiers total. In a few minutes they were all around me, sitting on the retaining walls, resting with their backpacks, talking amongst themselves and glancing at me. One of the soldiers was swinging a loaf of white bread, asking, "lehem?" Bread, anyone? I only knew the word because of Bethlehem, which is "house of bread" in Hebrew.

I asked some soldiers, "midaber anglit? Speak English? One of them said, "yeah." I asked him if they're leaving soon. He looked impatient. "You do your job, we'll do ours." They moved on. I filmed the soldiers walking past two village girls in backpacks, and I filmed them walking out of the village, toward the valley, toward the rising sun. It was a strangely beautiful shot. I wished it was a movie and not real life. Sudki the sixth grader waved at me from his house, and I waved him over, "t3al, come!" There's nothing to be afraid of. He ran to me and I let him take my camera and film the line of soldiers walking down the farm road, which was illegal. I whistled the tune to "Bridge over River Kwai." I wondered if any of them heard me, or knew what it was. They were so young.

I walked with Sudki up the hill. I was running on three hours of sleep, but going back to bed wasn't an option. I had to cut the film and help Haj Sami with the report, and that would probably take all day. When I got into the office, Haj Sami was waiting for me, and the reporter Hakam from Tubas showed up after ten minutes. I uploaded all the footage on my laptop and and screened it for them. Ribhi, the village engineer who works in the office, translated one of their comments, laughing, "if you were Arab, you would have been dead!" At various parts, like the soldiers and the female students, Hakam would say "thahab!" and it took me a minute to remember, from my visit to the jewelry store in Tubas, that thahab meant gold. My footage was gold. That was a nice feeling.

I spent the rest of the day editing Haj Sami's report on the intrusion, and musing over the whole experience. I'd been carrying this angry feeling with me all morning, I was angry for the people who wanted to pray but were too afraid to approach the mosque, I was angry for the children who puffed up their chests and told me they weren't afraid, and I was angry at the officers who chose to send their soldiers through the village, like there were no humans there, like this was a video game. I knew the soldiers were tired, and I knew they felt it was part of their patriotic duty. I just despaired at the gap between us. I hoped someday I could reach them and tell them I was serious. Israelis are welcome here.

Haj Sami was thinking the same thing. This is the letter he wrote, translated into English. Now it's being translated into Hebrew:

Dear People of Israel,
I am the mayor of Al Aqaba, a small peaceful Palestinian Village in the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank Area C. I write to you in Hebrew, learned over the years I spent in an Israeli hospital. I am writing to tell you about your army’s training in our village last week. I hope you will feel reassured by my message and help, as so many of you helped over 10 years ago, to assure the future of our village.
On the morning of Wednesday February 22, 2012, the biting cold greeted us before dawn as we headed to morning prayers. To our surprise, Israeli occupation forces in three jeeps and military vehicles were parked in front of the main door of our mosque in our Village of Al Aqaba. We were afraid to approach, and their unanticipated presence caused a twenty-minute delay of the adhan, the Islamic prayer faithfully recited five times a day.
We hoped that the military vehicles would move — but no. As we walked past the military jeeps to attend the dawn prayers, we were surprised to find the jeeps running and the soldiers inside in a very deep sleep. Even after the call to prayer, they remained asleep. They must have been very tired. As we departed the mosque in the morning light — workers, famers, and students starting our day — we were stunned to see hundreds of soldiers, laying down and sleeping throughout our village, on our roads and in our fields, some right next to our homes.
Although the sleeping soldiers were a rare sight for the village to behold, we decided not to disrupt the soldiers and prevented any harm or disruption to the soldiers while they slept. But it was such a curious sight and we did not know what the work of the soldiers would be when they woke up, so I asked friends to quietly film. Here is our teacher’s film, Israeli Army in Al Aqaba 2-22-12
The soldiers’ presence in our village raised a lot of fear and anxiety, especially given our history and the 2001 Israeli High Court decision that prevents soldiers from using our village for training exercises. Later many of Aqaba’s villagers found themselves wondering, ‘Where else could soldiers have parked, camped, and slept peacefully, safely watched over by Palestinian villagers? And why, if they trust us enough to sleep here among us, why do they still want to destroy our village?”
The Israeli Army has issued demolition orders against more than 90% of our village. Within a month of Israeli Brigadier General Moti Almoz’ December meeting with the Governor of Tubas and with me here in Al Aqaba Village, 29 more demolition orders were issued.
Because international organizations can call the Israeli Army, I asked Rebuilding Alliance, an American organization that is raising funds to help us rebuild our homes, to call them. An Israeli Army contact denied the soldiers were even in the village and again warned Rebuilding Alliance that any new homes in Al Aqaba will be destroyed. They said American towns would do the same as they — but, as Rebuilding Alliance replied, “American town councils create town plans, issue building permits, and inspect new structures. That’s what Al Aqaba is doing in its town, on its own land, land to which they hold clear title.”
The people of the village of Al Aqaba have been bearing the pain of life under occupation and theft of property since the 1967 war. As a result of the military maneuvers conducted with live ammunition by the Israeli army and settlers, the agriculture has been impacted greatly by the destruction of our citizens’ crops, growing isolation of the citizens from outside resources, home and road demolitions, and the denial of essential services to our small village, particularly safe, clean drinking water and the right to build our homes – basic human rights that every human being is entitled to.
Last year Occupation Forces twice destroyed our Peace Road, the road our school bus uses to get the children to school. Additionally, seven families were made homeless by destruction of their modest homes, and their goats had to sleep in the cold too when their stables were destroyed. These senseless acts of destruction especially frighten our children.
People of Israel, we are not a threat to you. We are your neighbors. Please recognize Al Aqaba’s town plans. Help us build a secondary school and a rehabilitation hospital. Come visit us and stay in our guest house.
We ask your help and we welcome you.

Haj Sami Sadeq Sbaih
Mayor of Al Aqaba Village
Near Tubas, Jordan Valley, West Bank, Palestine

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Shir Hever on Keiser Report

Here's a really interesting interview about Area C, it starts at 12:45...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

3adi (normal)

I don't know what to say.

I had a post planned out. It was going to be called Ghadatain, which I think means "two lunches." I ate two lunches in a row today. But that doesn't seem so important anymore.

I'll start from the beginning anyway.


Today, representatives from the French, Belgian, and Sweden Consulates (in Jerusalem) came up to visit Al Aqaba, along with the British Consul General himself. Sir Vincent Fean was a very amiable man who spoke fluent Arabic and got on very well with Haj Sami. I sat in on their meeting with Haj Sami, then he and I took them on a walk around the village to show them what's been demolished by the Israeli army, what's under demolition order, what the village needs now, what they're already working on, etc...

As we approached the kindergarten building, the Belgian diplomat was like, "wait, we funded this, and it's under demolition order?" and I was like, "yeah!" and the look on his face...

He said, "this is the stuff I need to tell them..."

I must be getting desensitized to this reality.

They were all young and nice-looking and nicely dressed, so I kept dodging out of the photos. After our tour, they invited me to Tubas to have lunch with them, and I hadn't eaten yet, so I said an enthusiastic yes. I hopped into their leather-seated vehicle and joined their motorcade. The new-car smell hit me immediately; I realized I'd been riding in a lot of old, rickety cars. I picked up an atlas on the seat and started flipping through it. It was the UN Humanitarian Atlas of the West Bank and Gaza. It detailed every village, roadblock, checkpoint, settlement, military camp...I flipped through it for a minute, and the Belgian diplomat told me to keep it. It was the best atlas I'd seen of the occupied territories. What a morbidly wonderful gift.

We parted ways with Sir Vincent, whose motorcade went back to Jerusalem, and drove down to a restaurant in the nearby city of Tubas. I'd never been inside of it before, only waited outside while my taxi drivers ordered three chickens for their family's dinner. The restaurant was larger than I expected, with two stories of dining space. I sat down with the three consular officials, and the Belgian did all the ordering. I was feeling a little shy, even though my Arabic is just about as good as his. They asked me about my story and how I ended up in Al Aqaba, and I asked them about life in Jerusalem and consular work. The French guy was young, an intern, and I mentally kicked myself when I realized he was traveling around the West Bank for free as the representative of his country. I would have to get myself one of those job things...

I was curious about their lifestyles, and whether they had a diplomat bubble. I learned about the split between the Embassy diplomats in Tel Aviv and the Consular diplomats in Jerusalem, as one is responsible for relations with the Israelis, and the other for Palestinians.

"Is there any friction between you guys?"
"Oh yeah, I mean, you just want to tell them how different our experience is. They're doing their thing in Tel Aviv and they don't have to be bothered with checkpoints or any of that. We were at a meeting with a Minister in Nablus and the Israeli air force made a sonic boom that shook the building and everyone there was just like, business as usual....I mean, it's like Stockholm Syndrome, they're mostly interacting with Israelis, we're mostly interacting with Palestinians....

These guys didn't fit into my image of the stodgy diplomat. I saw on their business cards that they work in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem. So they are based in a Palestinian area. I might have to go visit them, before I visit the U.S. Consulate. 

Oh yeah, we ate a thousand little salads and kabob and chicken and falafal and it was delicious.

After they took off in their motorcade, I traipsed up the hill with my new atlas, ready to get back to Al Aqaba, because a few of my former English students were going to come up and visit me.

I passed by a jewelry shop, and I realized that I knew the men sitting outside, and had to stop. My friend at the Governor's office had called me the week before, asking if I could help this family's son acquire his visa to study in the States. He'd already been accepted to NYU. I took the acceptance letter and said I'd try. Now his father was greeting me, so I stopped for a cup of coffee. I talked to him and his colleagues for a while, then his son asked if I would join his family for lunch. I told him I had just eaten, but he wanted to introduce me to his family, so I said 30 minutes should be enough. Like I haven't learned anything about Palestinian hospitality!

So I got in his car and we drove up to what seemed like the highest point in Tubas. I'd always wanted to see the view from up there, and it was stunning. I took great pleasure in seeing this beauty in a terribly underrated city. It definitely felt like a village, a large village: all about the family, no apartment buildings...and very green.

I went in to their nice, two-story house and hung out with this family for a while. They served me lunch, my second lunch in an hour, and I ate a surprising amount. I hadn't eaten breakfast, so there was still some space in there. It was chicken and rice and this yoghurty soup that people seem to have a love-hate relationship with. I'm like it ok, but I preferred the rice plain. I often joke that my taste buds are too Scandinavian. 

There were seven sisters and two brothers in that family. I was greeted by every sibling at one point. The littlest girl was about two, her name was Lara....Lulu. She was adorable. I showed her my camera and she couldn't get enough of it...she wailed when I put it away and her father had to bust out his camera phone to pacify her. They made such a sweet pair, and I wished I had videotaped them together. There's something about seeing Palestinian fathers doting on their daughters that breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that it's an image I feel the need to capture, for the sake of proving its existence.

My friend drove me back to Al Aqaba, and his mother and two of his siblings came along. As we climbed the hill up to Al Aqaba, she told me it was her first time there. I was surprised, and not surprised. Al Aqaba was only seven kilometers away, but if one didn't have family ties there, they weren't likely to visit. Still, seven kilometers! Maybe they could come and visit me sometime.

After they dropped me off by the mosque, I went back to the guest house and set up my computer. I'm not sure what I was trying to accomplish in the fifteen minutes before my English students showed up, but I managed to check Facebook before I heard a big "BOOM!"

I gathered the army was training, but I'd never heard a boom like that before. I heard another explosion. I grabbed my camera and went outside to see streams of smoke emanating from behind a hill on the other side of the village. It looked like it was coming from the area that used to be a military camp, right outside the village boundary. I was outraged.

I started trotting over in that direction with my little red camera, half running, half walking, and I passed a family that was sitting and apparently watching the action from afar. I greeted them and made an excuse about why I couldn't sit down for tea, and kept trotting towards the smoke. As I got past the herd of goats  hanging out next to their barracks and onto the back-road that demolished in September, I saw 11-year-old Sudki trotting after me.

Apparently I hadn't seen Haj Sami sitting with the family, and he sent Sudki after me. The sixth grader, thanks Haj Sami!

I wasn't planning on diving into the army training, I just wanted to get close enough to film it. Sudki and I walked up the road together and an old man outside his house scolded us, telling us not to go "that way," but "that way." They were shooting. Sudki and I found a large rock on top of the hill and perched on it. I gave him my camera, and he zoomed in and out of the hills in front of us and located an army jeep and a bunch of soldiers gathered between the hills. They were just like the hills on the other side of the village, where the army trained almost every week, it was the same story. But I'd never seen them on this side before, making so much noise, and Sudki told me they had been next to the main road of the village earlier today, and that was scary. They weren't supposed to train that close.

Every other minute we heard a boom and saw some kind of smoky flare shoot into the sky. The soldiers were yelling back and forth, and I thought they sounded kind of like gorillas. I wanted to shout at them, "hey, I'm working! Can you keep it down?" What would they do?

After a few minutes, Sudki said, "yalla," and we started to head back. I didn't bring my phone, so my students were probably wondering where I was. As we approached the main road, we saw them coming towards us, accompanied by Haj Sami in his electric wheelchair. I hadn't seen my students, Orwah, Abdulnaser, or Younes in a month or so, so it was nice to catch up, but we could still hear the shooting and explosions over the hill, so we didn't have much else to talk about.

As we conversed, the governor of Tubas rolled up in his car for the second time that day (he had met the diplomats that morning), and he asked Haj Sami what was going on. Haj Sami had called him, because this wasn't a normal kind of training. 

After they talked and the governor left, we all went back toward the village and gathered in the village council office to warm up and drink some coffee. There was a young man with my students that I'd never met before, but his brother was friends with me on Facebook, and I remembered that he'd kept inviting me to visit him in Tulkarm. I made up my mind that I'd go to Tulkarm this weekend. I've been meaning to cross that off my list.

This new friend and my students and Haj Sami were talking about Khader Adnan and the administrative detentions. I knew that Khader Adnan was on his seventy-somethingth day of his hunger strike. It seemed like the entire West Bank was rallying around this baker, a former member of Islamic Jihad, who was in Israeli prison with no charge. He was now a central figure, representing thousands of Palestinians who were detained and imprisoned, also without charge.

Then they mentioned someone they knew who was recently detained. Orwah turned to me.

"You know Saed...." I was confused.
"In our class....Saed."
Of course I knew Saed, 35 years old, quiet, always accompanied by his siblings, the caretaker.
"Him." Him??
I knew that Saed had been in prison for 5 years, a decade or two ago, for belonging to the Hamas party, but now??
"Yes, they arrested him last week."
 I felt sick. Now Saed could be with Bassem Tamimi. He could be with my friend Ashraf, who's been in detention since October. He could be starving himself like Khader Adnan. He could be sitting in a dark room with a bag over his head.

I asked them which prison he was in. "I don't know, they'll keep him for 18 days, then tell his family..."

I remember sitting with Saed and his sisters, all my students on the balcony overlooking their garden in Tubas. They had just  fed me makloubeh, because they knew from our class discussion that it was my favorite dish. Now we were drinking tea and eating fruit, and Saed and I were smoking argheelah. We talked about the differences between English and Arabic, and culture shock, and I was surprised to learn that Saed had been to prison. He was a math teacher now, and he had three small boys. I think that's what desensitized me to administrative detention here...if a gentle man like him could go...

And now they had taken him from his family for nothing. I'd left the conversation, I was staring a the wall, taking deep breaths. What could I do?

The call to prayer started, and my students went to go pray then head home. I didn't know when we'd see each other again, but I told this new friend that I might see him on Thursday if he came to Tulkarm with me to see his brother.

So I went back to the Guest House, and tried to push yet another heavy thought from my mind. I thought I would get a lot done, finish the fundraising profile, the NPR pitch, and the award application for AmeriCorps. I ended up spending hours tweaking the Guest House blog, which is doing a bit better now. I was a little frustrated that the guy from the company in Nablus, who I'd hired to make the Al Aqaba website, didn't even bother to get the Arabic grammar on "Al Aqaba Village" right. What the hell.

Anyways, so I fiddled with what I could control, then checked the news. There was a video on Mondoweiss about Bassem Tamimi, whose wife I'd gone to visit in Nabi Saleh with members of the Israeli-Palestinian Crossing Borders group a month ago. I'd never been to one of the demonstrations in Nabi Saleh, but she showed us videos of what the soldiers did to the village and it looked so much like Bil'in, and worse...

So I started to think about Bassem, and my friend Ashraf from Bil'in. I pulled up Facebook chat and asked my journalist friend from Bil'in what the latest news was, and he said Ashraf had another three months on his sentence....but it could be more after that.

I was there when they put Ashraf in the truck. Yes, Ashraf was provocative. He would go up to the soldiers alone with his flag and wave it around them, and that was enough for them to haul him away and accuse him of throwing stones. As if that, if it were even true, was enough to lock someone up for six months or more.

I saw the Facebook posts on Khader Adnan, and wondered again why I hadn't taken any action. Do I think he's Superman? He's expected to die any day! And they have him chained to a bed while he withers away. I saw a video that was taken from outside his hospital room and you can hear him shouting "freedom and dignity!" I don't know how he has the energy to shout at this point. It gave me chills.

And now Saed. I felt so angry. That this could happen, that it was happening. I was exhausted, but I wanted to write down my thoughts before I went to sleep, because I thought there would be something valuable in raw emotion, as unproductive as blogging may be. As I was waiting for my blog to load, I heard an explosion. What the hell was that. Another one, then the sound of falling debris. Were they in the village? They must be just outside...again.

Something inside me just cracked. They were training at 3:30 in the morning. I picked up my camera and stood on the roof outside my front door and pointed my camera at the few jeep lights I could see, knowing it would come out dark anyway. I focused on the mosque. I captured the sounds of the rat-a-tat-tat of guns and the occasional explosion and falling of debris, which was a sound I'd never heard here before.

I thought of the kids. I thought of the number of times I've heard Palestinians say the word "3adi" today. Normal. Whatever, it's normal. Yeah, I mean, it's normal. The air was freezing and the stars were unbelievably clear. The best I'd seen them in Al Aqaba. I tried to film the stars, but no luck, all black.

Boom, boom. Mush 3adi, it's not normal. This is more than a bad movie, it was frightening, and I started to cry.

I went back inside, back to the heater and Facebook chat. My head still hurt.

What was I saying about prisoners?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hadad (mourning)

It's a stormy day in Ramallah, and my heart is heavy. Ten (maybe more now) children were killed in a bus crash outside Jerusalem this morning. I went upstairs in Zamn cafe to join my friends on their laptops and I didn't understand why they were so quiet. Every few minutes I heard a "tsk" or a long inhalation. Souli asked me, "did you hear about the accident?"

He'd actually mentioned it this morning, Minwar had just told us over the phone that there had been an accident. Souli said that sometimes they exaggerate these things.

Now he's distraught. It happened near his village of Hizma. He's looking at all the news stories and posting updates in all the Facebook groups. I asked if the other truck was Israeli. He said this wasn't political.

But now I see posts with Facebook screenshots, showing Israeli comments in Hebrew rejoicing in the fact that the deceased children in question were Palestinian. I don't know the news source they were commenting on, what segment of society they represent, but the post and its English and Arabic translations are going viral. George Rishmawi made a statement on Facebook that Palestinians are forced to drive on windy, dangerous roads because the Israeli wall cuts them off from Jerusalem. So much for this not being political.

I'm sad for the children and their families. I'm sad that voices of support and concern will inevitably be drowned out by voices of hate, because they keep the wheels in motion. These wheels are so hard to stop.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shabbat Shalom, Bil'in

On Friday I went to Bil'in. I brought a French photographer who was also staying at Souli's on Thursday.

We were all sending off our friend Dasha who is leaving the country, by drinking wine and inevitably talking politics. This girl Marin told me she was interested in going to a demonstration in the morning and Souli volunteered me, somewhat mockingly: "go with Morgan, she goes to Bil'in every Friday." Alright, that's not true, but I did plan to go in the morning and I was happy to have her with me. In the end, we didn't go out to the bar like we'd planned, so I just passed out and woke up with a wicked hangover. But I managed to get of bed at ten to make shakshooka in honor of Dasha's last morning. It was her specialty, and I hope I did it justice.

At around 11:30, I rushed Marin out the door and we taxi'd to the service station to Bil'in. Sometimes I have rotten luck with last-minute taxis, but by 12:05 we were by the Bil'in village mosque, where the demonstrators were starting to assemble. I recognized a few of them, but it had been a while. One guy went up to me and asked if I needed a briefing before the demo. I declined, thinking I was experienced enough, but then I grabbed Marin, who was taking photos, and told her this would be interesting. I didn't know there were briefings!

We sat in a circle and listened as one of the Israeli regulars told us about how to deal with tear gas and what to do if we got arrested. I wondered if there were any first-timers and what they thought of this information. No foreigners would get arrested in Bil'in, but it was useful information. You can give two statements: "I deny the charges" and "I was subjected to such-and-such treatment during my arrest" and beyond that, "I prefer not to comment."

I saw a girl with curly blonde hair wearing a Northface jacket and a kuffiyeh, and I wondered where she was from. Maybe I could interview her for my foreigners in Palestine video. There was an image people didn't see very often.

We went outside and I recognized more regulars from Israel. I saw my friend Hamde from Bil'in, who just got back last week from a year in Germany. I introduced him to Marin, since she's a photographer as well. We went down the street to get some coffee before the demo. Cars started to stream past us, and we realized no one was walking this time because of the rain. I would've preferred to walk, but we didn't want to miss anything, so we hopped in a mini-bus. A British man was sitting in the front seat and I learned later he was a former MP, whose wife is active in Palestinian solidarity back in Britain. The blonde girl was also on the bus, and she introduced herself to me. Lindsay from Arkansas. I recognized her accent then, my aunt has the same one :)

Lindsay worked for Teach for Palestine in the Askar Refugee Camp in Nablus. She'd been here since August, longer than me, but was on her way out in a week or two. She was going to spend two weeks in India. I asked her if she was stopping in Delhi, where my aunt from Arkansas lives, but unfortunately she wasn't. That would've been awesome. But I liked Lindsay a lot, she was very genki, y3ani, spirited and enthusiastic.

We got off the bus at Abu Lemon, the little nature reserve near the wall, and the demonstration had already started. In fact, I saw a stone fly as I got closer and thought, "hoo boy, this will be a fast one" but there was no tear gas yet. A second later, we heard a boom, and another boom, and they sounded like sound bombs, but I realized they were rubber bullets being fired. Suddenly Abdullah Abu Rahma, who was wearing a yellow rain coat and using a shield covered in pictures of the martyr Bassem Abu Rahma to protect him as he clambered over the barbed wire fence, was on the ground clutching his leg. I heard Lindsay say, "oh, they shot him. unbelievable." She was obviously pissed, and went back by the ambulance, which then bleeped its way down to Abdullah, and was turned away. Abdullah came hobbling past me, a big red welt/hole under his knee.

After that, things moved pretty fast. I saw Marin on the front line, snapping photos from behind a mound of rocks, and was glad that she had found a mentor in Hamde, who was running around in his gas mask. The gas wasn't much today, but at one point the army decided this demo was finished, and shot the gas upwind. Some of us moved out of the way, then they shot more, and it became inescapable. I ended up retreating down the road with the other foreigners. The Israeli who had given the briefing went up to me and handed me a cleansing wipe, so I could sniff the alcohol. Alcohol and onions. I'm baffled by the onions, because they make you cry the same way tear gas does (minus the burning throat), but you're supposed to put an onion to your face after getting gassed.

I caught up with Lindsay and she agreed to do an interview, after taking a minute to stop crying. Now I have four interviews. cha-ching.

We then hopped into a car with Hamde and went to the Popular Committee office to drink apple juice and coffee and eat chocolate wafers. I gave Lindsay my information and she headed out on a bus with the British former MP and a bunch of other people. I was relieved to see that Marin had also made her way onto the bus, and I waved goodbye. I didn't know if I'd see her again.

I knew it was going to be difficult for me to get back to Ramallah if I waited too long. We saw two cars of Israelis headed to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They bade farewell to Hamde in Hebrew and headed off. 

Hamde and I ended up walking around the olive groves, and he told me to be careful, because the ground sinks. It sinks? I saw that it was muddy from the rain, but I didn't know what he meant until he told me that an Israeli soldier once fell into a hole during a raid, because it had been covered up. Like a booby trap? I started to see more and more holes. Hamde explained that the ground underneath us was hollow, because people used to live in these caves. There had been archeological digs and they found ancient artifacts and tombs with gold inside-like the Egyptians were buried. I knew never knew this about Bil'in. I had no idea what its history was before the last five years, minus Hamde's boyhood days with nine siblings and teachers who always kicked him out of class. It was hard to imagine him a troublemaker when he was now arguably the most mobile, free person in Bil'in. Or maybe that makes it easier to imagine. Everyone was happy to see him come back, because he was one of the few people who could get along with anyone, regardless of age or politics....I kind of shuffled around inspecting the ancient tombs while he caught up with an old kuffiyed man who was out on the hill with his goats, and greeted the little kids from a family passing by.

"I don't want to wave at them and walk away like it's nothing, you know, I don't want them to think I went to Germany and now I'm part of that culture, I hate that, really...."

We stopped by Iyad's house to pick up his internet USB drive, then up to his brother Khamis' house where his mother was sitting. She can hardly see now, but recognized Hamde's voice, and I made my presence known. "Ah, Markojan," she said, and invited me to sit with her. She was cleaning her shoes that were covered in mud, and was struggling to put them back on, so Hamde put them on for her and brought water from the well to pour over her hands.

Asma, a tall, quiet girl in 9th grade saw me from her house and came over to sit with us. Hamde had forgotten his camera at Iyad's and went running back to find it after the boy he sent had come back empty-handed. Turns out they didn't let the boy have it because they feared he would break it.

Hamde announced that he would cook dinner with vegetables from their garden, and I started worrying that I would have to stay the night, which wasn't my intention. I wondered if I should try and make a run for it, go hitch-hike back to Ramallah before it got dark, but I knew it would be a battle, and I wasn't ready for it yet.
Hamde and I took a walk down the road towards where the old security fence used to be. The sun was setting and everything was quiet. Then I heard the call to prayer, but it didn't sound quite right. It wasn't coming from Bil'in, it was far-off and muffled, and it in it. I realized it was coming from the settlements.

"Shabbat!" I yelled over at Hamde. It was Friday evening.

It reminded me of the call to prayer. I took some footage. I'd never heard anything coming from the settlements over a loudspeaker, that seemed like just an Islamic thing. After the music died down there was a prayer said and a quick "Shabbat Shalom." Then a child came over the loudspeaker and added another "Shabbat Shalom." We were standing a few hundred meters away as the sun set over Modi'in Illit, and everything went quiet.

I hear soldiers speaking in Hebrew, then I hear Israelis speaking Hebrew at a cafe in Jerusalem. I see giant flaming menorahs at Tappuah junction and Eli settlement, then I see little menorahs sitting in window sills in a Jerusalem neighborhood. I hear Shabbat music blaring from Modiin settlement, then I listen to my friends sing before Shabbat dinner in Jaffa.

How ugly these things look under occupation.

Hamde and I walked back to his family's house and started chopping spinach and tomatoes. Apparently the way I chopped tomatoes was ridiculous, and I had to humbly accept his advice, seeing as he'd worked three years as a cook in Tel Aviv. We sat down to bowls full of stewed veggies for dipping, while his family ate mansaf, made of rice, bread, and goat meat. Hamde didn't even have to say it, but he did: "I don't want to tell them how to eat..." but his mother was diabetic and her health was declining..."you need balance." He hated the taste of mansaf and didn't eat goat because he grew too attached to the family's goats growing up. No one else touched his food.

After that we sat for a while and caught up, then I fought a 30-minute battle and eventually convinced him to let me take a taxi back to Ramallah. We walked to Adeeb's house to see if he could drive me, and when the door opened I saw Tutu standing there. Her face lit up and she started jumping up and down, and my heart melted into a puddle. I went inside with Tutu attached to my leg and the whole family was sitting inside the front room, which was brightly lit and full of this infectious cheer. They yelled "Morjan! Ahlan!" welcome! and I shook the hands of Adeeb and his wife and his seven daughters. Little Ahmad was watching TV in the bedroom. They got me to sit down and eat some fruit and drink tea, and I showed them the picture I took of Tutu and Yazid in October.

After that I hopped in Adeeb's taxi, and Hamde warned him that if anything funny happened, he would find out and hunt him down. We'd heard of an incident of a foreign girl getting felt up in her taxi to Bil'in and all the guys who heard the story were incensed-what taxi? who was he? what did he look like? we know all the drivers! I don't know if anyone will find out, but moral of the story is, girls stay in the back seat.

Adeeb was of course, a perfect gentleman. He quizzed me on all the names of the villages we passed, and I aced the test, thanks to the friend I'd met from Deir Bzih and the English lesson I taught in Ein 3rik. Adeeb tried to explain the meaning of the word "Ein" and we ended up with the word "spring." He stopped outside the village mosque to show me the spring that ran underneath, and invited me to drink straight from it.

Then I was deposited in front of Zamn Cafe, where Souli was having coffee with Bader, and it became a regular Friday night in Ramallah.
I know consistency is important. I know I should be posting every day so I'm not just posting when I have something to complain about. Those posts usually aren't the best posts, and they're not the point of this thing.

That being said, blogging is freakin exhausting. Though I imagine if it's like cleaning your apartment, and you do it a little bit every day, it doesn't pile up on you and get overwhelming and...smelly. So I'm going to make an effort, really.

Ok, time to catch up a bit.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Church in Jerusalem

Today I went to church in Jerusalem. In order to get there on time, I had to take the light rail from Hebrew University to Damascus Gate and run up the Via Dolorosa. I squeezed past a Brazilian tour group carrying a cross and chanting a prayer and sprinted past Station Five. What a strange feeling that was.

The whole time I was remembering my route to church in New Orleans. When I lived in Bayou St. John I would walk or bike down Ursulines Ave, along the bayou, and down one block of Jeff Davies Pkwy. The bike ride took about 8 minutes.

When I lived Uptown, I would bike 25 minutes through Uptown, Broadmoor and Gerttown, go over the highway bridge, and down the neutral ground of Jeff Davies to the church on Canal Street. Sometimes I woke up early (walla!) and rode the streetcar for an hour and a half. I had to walk four blocks to Carrollton, catch the St. Charles Streetcar, ride the crescent route to Canal Street, then catch the Canal Streetcar and ride up to Jeff Davies. It was an incredibly indirect route, but I loved the Streetcar so much it didn't really matter. And if I spent 15 minutes downtown on Canal Street it felt like an eventful day.

I was thinking about this as I went to church in Jerusalem this morning. I have no home base here so I'll probably come from somewhere different every Sunday morning I go to church. My first time, I CouchSurfed in West Jerusalem and walked 20 minutes from an apartment on Ben Yehuda Street to Damascus gate in the Old City. I grabbed a cream cheese and lox bagel on the way and scarfed it down as I walked. In Jerusalem it's not as weird to eat while you walk, like an American would. In the West Bank I often get people calling, "sahtain!" at me, basically poking fun and saying Bon Apetit! Americans and their constant rush, their "to-go" culture...what a funny thing.

So I ate my bagel and descended onto the Old City, where I could hear all the church bells ringing. It was a beautiful sound. I wasn't ordinarily awake at 8:45am. My church in New Orleans started at 11:10.

The congregation is made up of Americans and other internationals, and they get new visitors every week from Africa, Sweden, India, everywhere....The service reminds me a lot of my Lutheran childhood summer days in Washington, Minnesota, and Alaska. It's a lot quieter than the gospel services in New Orleans, but it has that warm, family feel.

Here are some photos I took of the church sanctuary and the courtyard outside. The sanctuary was an infirmary during the Crusader period. Now they use it as a mini-chapel for the English-speaking congregation.

After meeting the pastor and his wife for strudel at the Austrian Hospice, I walked to the Educational Bookstore. As I walked under the old city walls, I looked up and saw the Mount of Olives. I just had to stop and take a picture.

Today I also returned to the bookstore. On my way down the Via Dolorosa I had to squeeze past two Christian tourist groups, one from India and the other from somewhere in Europe. This was their first time walking the Stations of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Some of the groups sing, some of them listen quietly to their tour guides. Most of them pray together. Palestinian shop owners advertise batteries and memory cards with their wooden crosses and other Christian souvenirs. And I'm just going to and from church, establishing a new routine in this amazing city. A city that 99% of my friends in the West Bank aren't allowed to see. I can't spend a minute here without remembering that.

Now I'm sitting in the bookstore, surrounded by books on Palestine and they're playing my favorite song by Fairouz. Three of the people who sat at the next table are Eccumenical Accompaniers. They monitor checkpoints and army/settler incidents in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank. One woman was from Ireland, the other two were from Switzerland and Sweden. They get a three-month tourist visa like everyone else, and they don't mention their work to the Israeli passport-stampers. They pretend to be tourists. They wear vests with the symbol of a dove and a cross and they're still thrown into the anti-Israel bin. They give presentations to the members of my congregation, like the Christian Peacemaker team and the Tent of Nations from Hebron. They're encouraged to be active in social justice once they go back home, but they're not allowed to be politically active here. How fragile is the presence of international Christians in this place....

Visit from the Welfare Ministry

One day we had a large group visit from one of the government ministries. Haj Sami and Ribhi asked me a few times what this ministry was called in English, "the Ministry...they help the poor people." I guessed....welfare? I don't think we have a ministry of welfare in the States, or it's called something else. But I learned the other day from a sign that there is indeed a Ministry of Welfare in Palestine.

So I was awoken early in the morning by Abu Abed, who along with Haj Sami's niece and sister, took over my kitchen to make masakhan for twenty-something guests.

His two children, Magdad and Noor were running around, in and out of the guest house...

and Magdad helped served lunch...

It was delicious.

Haj Sami had a meeting with the delegates, who were mostly women. Hakam came up from Tubas with his camera and shot some footage for Palestine TV. He interviewed the leader of the delegation and Haj Sami about the situation in Al Aqaba. Then we went on a walk down to the demolished road.

After lunch, the delegates left and went back to the guest house to upload my pictures and hang out with Magdad and Noor. Noor practiced writing her name and numbers on my white board. I congratulated her, then later realized that her Arabic 3 was backwards. Dammit! Why can't I learn Arabic numbers?

I'll tell you why: The 5 looks like a 0, the 6 looks like a 7, and the zero looks like a period. Maddening.

I projected my pictures of the kindergarteners onto the wall and Magdad was like, "whoaaaa. my sister is huge."

Nature walks, bedouins and rainbows

Two weeks ago, I took a walk around Al Aqaba. I wanted to see how far toward the mountain I could go before the road ended.

I walked down from the village on a gravel-y road and thought about bringing a group on this walk. This seemed like a nice, leisurely start. I got ten minutes down the hill and saw the road end, just in front of a grove of olive trees. This road was made to help the villagers get to their olives. I didn't know what path to take after the olive trees or whether it was safe, so I turned back. Ten minutes of steep uphill walking proved difficult. I've been on my computer too much lately, just sitting on my butt. If I bring visitors on a mountain walk, they might be a little distressed at this finale. Maybe if they're rewarded with lunch....

Then the road leveled off and I headed back toward the village. It was starting to rain. I looked up towards one of the houses (Haj Sami calls them barracks because often the families have to share the space with their animals) and I saw a mother and her children looking at me. I was a pretty odd sight, still. After I acknowledged them, I knew what was coming.
"T3ali!" Come! They waved at me.
I left the road and walked up to their house. I'm not sure if they were surprised that I accepted their invitation, but this was probably the first time an ajnabia had been in their house. The woman, who introduced herself as Sarah, welcomed me inside and hurried off, probably to put on some coffee. Another woman joined me in the room, and pointed at Sarah. She explained to me in Arabic, but I didn't understand until she gestured, rubbing her index fingers together and giving me the number two. They were both married to one man. I had never met a family with two wives, as much as I had heard about polygamy in Islam, and Palestine. A man is allowed to have four wives, but I'd never, even in the villages, seen this situation.

We were sitting in a two-room house made of concrete blocks. The rain from yesterday had made water stains on the wall, which the second woman pointed out to me. Her daughter of about eight years came in carrying a big, bundled-up baby. The woman took him and put him in a cradle swinging from a rope in the middle of the room.

I asked the daughter in Arabic what grade she was in, and she replied that she was in third. You speak English? I asked. She giggled. I asked "how are you?" She responded "fine, thanks."

Two little boys were peeking their heads in the doorway, looking at me. I asked, "shoo ismak?" what's your name? They ran away, shrieking with laughter. I smiled at the woman sitting next to me, and she smiled back at me.

She introduced herself at Hajar. Hagar. Sarah and Hagar! "zei Ibrahim!" I exclaimed. She smiled, yes. Bas, ihna mish zeihom. But we are not like them.

"Alhamdullilah," I said instinctively, to Hagar, then I wondered if that sounded naive or offensive. "Alhamdulliah," she said back. Thanks to God.

I could see the hill I had attempted to climb just outside their front door--their view was gorgeous. I asked Hagar if there was a way, "tariq" up to the top, she said yes. I asked her if there were landmines, bombs, and I pantomimed something exploding. She shook her head, no. She said the Jews train between here and the hill sometimes, and she pantomimed shooting.

"Kul yom?" I asked. Every day?
Not on Friday and Saturday, she said. I thought, of course, not on Shabbat, when the soldiers go home. If I was going to lead a nature walk, it would have to be on the weekend.

We sat quietly for a while, while the boys played peek-a-boo with me from outside. They were holding handfuls of fresh bread. It wasn't pita bread, or khubs tabun, it looked more crepe-y and thin. I asked Hagar what it was. She said it was khubs saj. She left and after a few minutes brought back a plastic shopping bag full of khubs saj for me. I dug in. It was delicious.

I asked Hagar if she was from Al Aqaba, which seemed like an obvious question. She told me no, she was from close-by, near the Maleh. I knew the Maleh was a salty hot-spring that had been mostly drained by a settlement. People used to come from all around to sit in the springs. It was said to have healing powers. People would say, "I'm going to the Maleh," the salt, and everyone knew what that meant.

Hagar clarified, "ihna bedu, mish fallahin." We are Bedouin, not villagers. I was immediately surprised at this statement, because Haj Sami had told me he didn't like one caption a website had printed, describing a girl from Al Aqaba as a "bedouin girl." It was easy to see why. If Al Aqaba was seen as a bedouin community, its planning wouldn't be taken as seriously. But Hagar's family was an exception. She explained that she settled in Al Aqaba because of her husband, and the animals they kept here, but she frequently took the bus to see her relatives in their Bedouin community by the Maleh.

It was still raining, but I saw rays of light shooting in through the holes between the wall and the roof. The roof was just metal sheets, held down onto the concrete blocks with various heavy things like tires and rocks. The sun was getting through and making little golden spots on the wall. I told Hagar maybe there would be a rainbow. "Mumkin qaws kuzah?" She smiled.

And sure enough, I saw a rainbow outside the door. I got up and immediately Hagar told me, "sit, sit!" but I was that strange ajnabia with the camera, and I had to get a few pictures. I asked one of the little boys, "sho hada?" what's that? and he yelled, "qaws kuzah!!!"

The other boy was jumping up and down yelling "qaws kuzah! qaws kuzah! qaws kuzah!" and it was the cutest thing I'd ever seen.

I found Sarah making khubs saj in a little stone hut, tossing the dough like a pizza and throwing it over the metal bowl. I told her I would come back to visit, and she told me to come visit everyday. It had finished raining, and the rainbow was fading. I said goodbye to the family and walked back toward the guest house.