Thursday, September 13, 2012

Three days in SF, Three Palestine Events

Someone call it, she's on fire!

I've finally started to work for Rebuilding Alliance, the organization that made it possible for me to get to Al Aqaba last year. These events have been great networking opportunities. Now if I only had an instinct for that kind of thing...

Night 1: Fundraising Dinner for AROC (Arab Resource and Organizing Center). It was a lot like the dinner I went to in New Orleans for the Muslim Legal Fund. The group is also committed to providing legal counsel for Muslim individuals and communities that are targeted. Pro-Palestine activists are seeing themselves occupying a much larger percentage of the FBI watch-list than before, with raids and arrests and deportations. AROC was raising money for legal costs and awareness campaigns. I'd almost forgotten that Pamela Gellar's racist bus ads were placed on Bay Area MUNI buses, so there were a few references to that "savage" accusation.  

It was really cool to see what a community effort this really was. Kids and teens were volunteering and  the performing for the event, and of course, the family feel. It was great to hear Arabic again. 

I expected the event to be drier than it was, (ok, maybe Arabic parties aren't my cup of shai) but this was a pretty hip crowd. There was a young singer-songwriter who performed an original and an Arabic folk song on her little electric acoustic guitar, and her voice was gorgeous and sassy, and I wish I remembered what her name was. Then there was an oud player and a traditional singer, but when everyone gets clapping it's fun, especially now that recognizing Arabic feels like this crowning achievement.

The book reading also surprised me. The author, Suha, read a few pages from a book she just published, and it actually got me a little emotional. She was in Palestine in 2003 with a olive harvest delegation, and after setting the scene on the terraced hills, she described how one American Jewish man who had joined the group with Rabbis for Human Rights, leaned over and asked her if she was Palestinian. She said yes, Palestinian-American. Then grinning, he asked a fairly common question: "so, what do you think is the solution? One state? Two states?"  

She was a good storyteller, and she had chosen a good story. I thought for a second that I knew how she felt because I remembered the agitation, but as a foreigner I could never really understand what it's like to be the target of that smile. I'd only been on the sidelines of this conversation, and the memory still made me simmer.

She just wanted to be left alone, but answered roughly, "I find it hard to talk about solutions when so many have failed to recognize the problem." 

The smile disappeared from his face. He had only come to help, after all. He asked defensively, "what...would you the problem?"

Again, she didn't want to continue the conversation. But she ended up talking about the theft of her land and the suffering of her people and started to cry with anger. What did she want? "I want an apology. I want someone to say they're sorry for what happened, and maybe when I'm satisfied that this apology is sincere I'll feel like talking to you about solutions." 

The visitor didn't respond. After a few moments a man emerged from behind the tree and said, "I was born and raised in Tel Aviv, and I know what we did to your people, and I'm sorry. This is the only home I have ever known, and I have nowhere else to go. I know it won't make up for what has happened, but I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." 

She went numb, and after a minute of holding back burning tears, her legs started to move, and she was carried across the olive grove, down the street, and into a yellow service taxi. 

I felt heavy as she recounted the experience, and I realized why it had never struck me to tell that story, although it was so familiar. Those questions, and the smiles and leisurely banter, had never hurt me that much.

Event #2: Palestine Culture Day at Golden Gate Park. The woman I'm staying with, Carin, drove down with me and we both helped Marc man the Rebuilding Alliance booth, which was selling Fair Trade olive oil from Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin. Almost everyone at the event, which went from noon to seven, was Palestinian. There was a table for Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian advocacy group, people selling t-shirts, jewelry, more olive oil, and local businesses were handling the food. So much food: shawarma, chicken, dawali, those spinach pocket things, mujadara, salads, and most importantly, knafe. For my first 48 hours in town I wasn't doing too shabby.

I took my phone around and filmed the booths and went slowly through the crowds so I could pick up some family and friend interaction. It wasn't hard to find an endearing moment, given this kind of community, and I wanted to capture it. I did get self-conscious at times, remembering that some of the people here may be politically active and wary of random cameras (flashback to the night before). That was a feeling I had a lot in Palestine, where people were very candid about their suspicions. One kid at a demonstration told his friends, "hey, the secret police is filming" because I seemed to be more interested in them than in the soldiers, which was true. But I forgot that if I was the secret police filming them throwing stones, they could expect a very unpleasant visit that night.

I kept turning my camera to a father and his toddler son on his shoulders. It was the cutest thing ever. 

It was fun to man the booth, and go around talking to people and seeing where they're from. Palestine is so small, it's easy to recognize villages and family names. Towards the end there was a whole family waiting in line for the henna lady, and we got to talk to the kids about Al Aqaba, and they asked the greatest questions. One 10-year-old boy was like, "so...why olive oil? I think you guys should do something...really, like, symbolic. Like a stuffed camel." Then his mom got pissed at him for getting henna'd because he had a Nickelodeon audition the next day.

Third event: World Social Forum delegates came to speak at a community center-thing (it reminded me of the Zeitgeist theater in New Orleans) about the meaning of joint struggle with the Free Palestine movement. The delegates represented a number of causes, equality for women, blacks, Latinos, queers, there was someone speaking about Palestinian youth movements, about the Black Panther party and Cointelpro, and there was a women representing the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. I think I'd seen her speak in New Orleans, with Hajo Mayer, a Holocaust Survivor and peace activist. It was really interesting hearing about their experiences with social justice movements and why that connects them to the issue of Palestine. I so wanted to jump on their invitation to attend the World Social Forum in Brazil, which is where they're headed in two months!

Strange coincidence, the last person to stand up and give a comment was an Israeli activist, he was very sleepy because he'd just gotten off the plane, and I wondered if I'd seen him before. I went up to him afterwards and it turns out I did know him. Gila and I met him at the office of Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, just before going to a protest in front of the Jewish National Fund building. I remember him being very supportive of the Al Aqaba Guest House and putting a flier up above his desk. And here we are in San Francisco.

I like this town.