Category Archives: Both Sides of the River

Ithacan Article

Today the Ithaca college school newspaper, the Ithacan, posted an article about my decision to travel to and teach in Palestine on the front page of its accent section. Here is the online edition if you are interested! 🙂

http://theithacan.org/19317

Advertisements

Israeli/Hamas Prisoner Exchange Reinforces Lack of Value for Palestinians

NOTE*** It is not my preference to reduce humans to ATM transactions. Trust me, if I ruled the world, things would be different. I am simply saying, that the use of humans as bargaining power, in itself reduces the prisoners to currency, I simply ask that we take the metaphor a step further to understand the implications of the exchange rate****

 

Today, the front of the NY times read “DEAL WITH HAMAS WILL FREE ISRAELI HELD SINCE 2006”. (Small variation in the online title)

Why doesn’t this article read “Deal with Israel will free over one thousand Palestinians” The title alone implies that the most significant implications of this decisions is the freeing of one. ONE. man. The accompanying picture is of the Israeli soldier’s friends and family who are, understandably, shocked and excited to the point of tears at the news.

Once again, you would never find pictures of the thousands of Palestinians who will be celebrating the return home of their own family members. It is blatant bias, such as this, that goes over the heads of most USians and that reinforces the importance of some people over the others. In this case, it is the value of ONE Israeli militant over 1027 Palestinians.  Denied their humanity, the Palestinian Prisoners are only significant in that they were the trading power to free the Israeli. Not humans, but a currency. A currency with a painful exchange rate. While someone benefits from a drastically imbalanced exchange rate in the economic sphere, no one would argue that having a weak currency is beneficial in the international market. Hamas took their foreign investment to the bank and received a large number of their local currency in exchange. Yet, the implication is, that on the large scale, what Hamas entered the figurative bank with and left with was of equal value. 1000 Palestinians to 1 Israeli. Hamas had to participate in this exchange, but by doing so, it reinforced the inequality.

I have often heard people, regarding this issue, complain that Hamas is being selfish to demand 1000 prisoners for one man. However, the disproportionality of this ratio was not established by Hamas. The US and Israel have long operated under the mentality that a small number of Israelis are significantly more important than a large number of Palestinians. In the 2009 invasion of Gaza, the over one thousand Palestinian casualties, most of which were children and women, were justified by the need to “defend” Israel from rocket attacks whose combined casuality implications are minimal by comparison.

Israel and the US happily accept the 1000:1 ratio when it works in their favor, and US and Israeli media validate and encourage the inequality through their journalism. Hamas simply monopolized off of their unfavorable place in the equation and, in this small example, benefited from it.

Why does the US, which likes to pretend that it cares about human rights and will approach MANY different issues under this façade -Darfur, Libya, Somalia, to name a few- refuse to approach this issue in that manner. Should the headline not read “Israeli/ Hamas prisoner deal results in the freeing of 1,028 political prisoners.”

The answer, (to me at least) is that the US does what is in its own best interest, and then finds a media angle to cover it up. Enter Iraq in the name of Freedom, Libya in the name of Human Rights, and blindly support Israel in the name of Democracy. At the same time, label democratically elected Hamas a terrorist organization, continually violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and fund the occupation (lack of freedom) of the Palestinian territories. Our hypocrisies are evident, and the motivations behind them, apparent.

In a healthy society, the role of journalism would be to expose them, not to propagate them.

 

The Online version of the Article

Using Another’s Words When I Fail to Find My Own

One of the most blatant reminders that you are in the west bank is the massive, concrete wall that separates Israel proper from the Palestinian territories. Built along Israeli’s re-imagined version of the green line- readapted to claim new lands- this barrier slices through land disregarding tradition, ownership, families, and UN declaration. I saw the wall many times, and twice stopped and walked along it. Each time I was overcome with an emotion that never formulated itself into a coherent post, so one of the more glaring reminders of occupation has had little mention in the too many words I have posted over the last year. (I did post some pictures, which can be found here!)

Luckily, I have Ben , who has done a wonderful job at often providing words (and posts) when I fail to find my own. Besides being a firefighter, known for saving an entire orphanage (if you don’t know what I am referring to, read this!), a brilliant and compassionate human, and a damn good teacher, he is also an artist. Ben composes melodic and gorgeous poetry, which he will happily perform for a good cause, or the relentless pleadings of his “flat”mates in Palestine. Here I include the poem he composed following our trip to the Wall, as well as a video of another piece of his. If you find Ben as amazing as I do, I recommend you like him on facebook! Also, I must brag, that the friend he falsely refers to as much wiser than himself in the last line is me. Though, rather than proving my wisdom, this line simply juxtaposes his powerful articulation with my crude assertions.

THE WALL

Once in Berlin I saw it spelled out
In letters so high they seemed to shout
“The world” it said “Is too small for walls”
So I eagerly wait for this one to fall

An ugly grey line pushes over the hills
Destroying the beauty of the land that it fills
And standing in front of it, dwarfed like a child
By its imposing nature and its sheer massive size
I see intimidation and a needless divide
So I lean my head backwards and I look to the sky
And there, just for a moment, I find some peace
In the creatures that soar and that glide above me

The birds fly so freely over the top
Of this thing that’s constructed only to stop
People moving and living as they might like
But the birds see no walls in their free open skies.

The feeling here, though, is not just depression
This isn’t just a symbol of hateful oppression
For a construction founded on racism
That seeks to create a fake prison
Has been reclaimed and given a new heart
By the spraypainted collage of words and art

For if we’ve learned one thing from our history
It’s that one of the things that makes us unique
Is the way we create beauty where none should exist
And the way we find hope and a way to resist.

So as I witness this concrete, so long and so tall
I comfort myself with the knowledge that walls
Are never built to stick around
And that this one, too, will come crashing down.

So to quote a friend much wiser than me
On the nature of inevitable decay
“One day we’ll all be buying a piece
Of this stupid fucking thing on eBay”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Pictures of the Rescued Dog

While in Palestine I wrote this post about a dog that our apartment had rescued of the streets. (read it here) During his short stay in our apartment (a tough situation as it is forbidden to have a dog in a  Muslim home, and there was an entire Muslim family living in our same building) he was given the name Conrad. I thought I would share some pictures of him with you.

As for Conrad, we gave him lots of food to give him some strength and then my roommates released him on the wealthier end of town where hopefully he will be safe. 

Better than Good

The poster on Ms. Amy’s classroom wall read “Better than good”. Crafted by students as a class project, the girls were given words such as ‘Phenomenal’ and ‘Fabulous’ to use instead of the mundane ‘Good’ which is almost as over used as ‘Fine’ , the nationwide taught response to ‘how are you?’ In an empowering moment the girls had, on their own accord, included ‘I am’ all over the poster. Yet, convincing the individual girls here that they are better than good, has proved to be more of a challenge than the poster’s creation would imply.

We had planned a field trip to what is within Nablus debated, but internationally recognized, as the best Kanafeh shop in town. After seeing how the kanafeh was made, we pulled our students into the small hole in the wall to engage in what had become an at least weekly tradition with Amy and I, tasting and evaluating (aka just eating) this Nabulsi tradition.

“I can’t eat Kanafeh” one protested. After prodding the truth came out. “Because I’m fat.”

I looked at the properly thin 14 year old before me. “But I am bigger than you, am I fat?”

“Yes, but it’s OK because you are older.” Ouch.

I remembered the 14 year old me, who was thinner at the time, but didn’t feel any thinner. For some reason I assumed that removing dating from the scene and covering hair with a scarf would remove these pressures, but here this girl was struggling with the same weight expectation that had burdened me at her age. (And, while not as large of an insecurity, bothers me now.)

What seems to have become a universal demand on women to be stick thin and deny their appetites for, in this case, this delicate, cheesy, sweet weighs down on both our shoulders. Is it any surprise? As USian movies and TV shoes are mailed, downloaded, and illegally burned across the world, our anorexic, airbrushed actresses are becoming the envy of the young girls here, and while they will never be blonde, have blue eyes, or a seductive American accent, at least they can strive for skinny. Skinny is something anyone can be, and no one can be enough.

Handmade Mother’s Day Cards in hand, the exuberant girls were being herded to the front for a picture. As most girls anxiously awaited the camera’s flash, molding their practiced smiles for the camera, Tala held back.

“No picture”

“Why?” I asked Surely it wasn’t for religious reasons as Tala’s older sister was already posing with her card.

“Because I am not beautiful.”

Not beautiful. By the age of 11, not only had Tala developed and accepted a definition of beauty, but had confirmed that it was not her. I looked at her wildly curly hair and large eyes. Her features are bold and defining. To her, all the positive traits I could mention would not convince her that she was worthy of the term beautiful. Before hitting puberty, she was convinced that her appearance was sub par.

It is unfortunate that these girls are struggling to adhere to an impossible image. That after only 11 years, she could look in the mirror and find faults. Technology has entered us into an international age. The words of this blog are no longer limited to my diary as they may have been in the past, or even a local newspaper. As I press post these words are instantly sent throughout the world. Similarly, the movies that the Hollywood industry creates are no longer simply destroying the body image of the blonde hair and blue eyed population from which the actors and actresses were selected, but also that of the gorgeous young women in our classrooms who are, to me, way better than good.

The Unwanted Pilgrimage

We exited the elaborate courtyard whose massive walls surround some of the holiest sites for the Ibrahimic religions. To Muslims, this is the location where it is believed the prophet ascended to heaven. The site is extremely protected and many people try and are unable to enter. Having attempted multiple times to enter during the extremely short and oddly timed tourist hours, we, myself and a friend I had met at the hostel, had decided it was time to play the Muslim card, that is, use the fact that we come from Muslim families to get into the beautiful holy sites. For my friend, this was literally a card. She possessed one of the controversial Turkish ID cards. Heavily criticized for including the bearer’s religion, it was that small crescent moon and star on her card that had allowed her easy access into an area many religious pilgrims never step foot in. My US passport had offered no religious evidence, obviously, but my Arab name and Arabic quickly convinced the guard who had greeted us with the only too familiar “Closed today, Muslims only,” to let me in. So, head scarves in place, we had entered into the peaceful sanctuary about an hour before.

A small sample of the beautiful Byzantine art

A small sample of the beautiful Byzantine art

I was immediately mesmerized by the elaborate Dome of the Rock. Each inch of the massive structure is intricately designed with Byzantine art,and the gold domed roof, the staple of the Jerusalem skyline funded during renovations by Jordan, shines with a faith instilling vibrancy. Entrance into the Dome is prohibited, and while strict rules such as what religions can enter at what times, who guards the doors, and what places are off-limits are irritable to the curious visitor, it is diligent adherence to these rules that keeps the city from breaking out into violence. In fact, it was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount or Haram Al Sharif, (the name of the courtyard used by Jews and Muslims respectively) after Yasser Arafat refused to give up either the holy site or East Jerusalem during negotiations, which set off the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising) The solid rock under our feet was unsettled ground, and as I tried to capture the glow of the gold roof, its demand was no wonder to even myself, one of the biggest religious pessimists.

We had moved on to Al Aqsa Mosque. We had entered the prayer area and were hit with a calm wave of energy, a sensation similar to the feeling of entering an air-conditioned room after being out in the heat. The comforting feeling of entering the prayer room in a mosque had beckoned us in from the political controversy that remained all around. The women’s prayer room was humble. Every few feet another small book-case was overflowing with copies of the Quran, the Sunnah, and the Hadith. A few people had been scattered about the room praying quietly while we looked around.

Our final stop had been the Marwani Mosque. Known to some as Soloman’s Stables for the short period it had been used to hold horses during the Crusades. The mosque is located below ground. Recent renovations by the Israeli government underneath Al Aqsa have left visible cracks throughout Marwani, causing large protests from Muslims worldwide.

We exited through one of the 11 gates around the courtyard, slipping out near the Muslim quarter. The rain was beginning to fall, and we found ourselves seeking shelter under a falafel stand. Sick of falafel, but happy to be out of the rain, I ordered a small cup of humus and purchased a kilo of fresh pita bread. As we waited out the rain, we began speaking to an older Arab gentleman. After finding that I spoke some Arabic he began with the usual list of questions, the answers to which revealed that we were both of Arab origin, with Muslim fathers, and were, of course, therefore Muslim.

He immediately pulled us into the rain and beckoned us down the street to a location he didn’t find the need to share with us. Happy to have learned I am from Colorado, he began ranting in Arabic about the Colorado River, which he had seen on TV.

“It is a big river, but not as big as the Nile or the Amazon. “ He continued as if he did not hear my repeated inquiry as to where we were going. This sort of event may seem strange, but very often we were ushered into a shop for tea or cookies, so we followed without much question.

After about 5 minutes of walking down the soaked and muddy rock road of old Jerusalem we found ourselves at another entrance to the courtyard, whose wonders we had just experienced less than 30 minutes before. At this point what was going on became clear.

This man, upon discovering our Muslim heritage had taken to escorting us on a pilgrimage to the Temple Mound/ Haram Al-Sharif, not realizing that we had already been into the site. “Muslims only” came the warding off by the soldier at the gate. The old man approached the IDF guards and began explaining to them in Arabic, that while we do not look Muslim, we were in fact, and that they needed to let us in. The conversation that ensued included 2 languages and zero communication.

“Shukran Amu, bes….” (Thank you, Uncle, but…) I said to the old man, but he continued to argue with the guards, one of which had begun demanding our passports from us to see if we were Muslim.

“Amu, we went to Al Aqsa already,” I paid great attention to make sure I got the past tense correctly in the Arabic sentence so if he didn’t understand that we had already gone, maybe the guards would.

“Bil Araby” (in Arabic) He demanded that I communicate with him in Arabic. I was speaking Arabic. And very simple Arabic even.

At this point the guard was getting impatient. Having acquired my companion’s passport and religious verification, he turned to me.

“Give me your passport.” The old man continued to speak to the other guard in Arabic asserting our religion and insisting our admittance.

“I don’t want in.”

“Give me your passport.”

At this point surrendering my passport seemed easier than arguing. Was it because I was a woman that they weren’t listening to me, or because none of us spoke fluently the other party’s native tongue? Here the guards who spoke Hebrew to each other were speaking Arabic with the old man, but English with us. I was speaking, or I guess attempting to speak, Arabic with the old man, and English with the guards. And the old man was speaking a bit of English and Arabic. Regardless of the words being spoken, none were being heard.

I handed over my passport, which did little to convince the guard that I was Muslim. Having quieted the guard for a moment, I returned my focus to the Old Man, but he wasn’t listening to me, but rather waiting for the verdict on my entry from the guard.

“Recite the Quran” the guard demanded looking up from my passport

“I DON’T WANT IN!”

“If you are Muslim recite the Quran”

“No”

“Yalla, Al Fatiha” He demanded me to recite the first Surah in the Quran.

“Yalla,” the Old man echoed the guards command.

“FINE!” I gave in and at a speed hastened by my frustration and bafflement, I recited the most famous verse of the Quran. The guard, satisfied, gestured toward the gate. And submitting to our fate, we followed the old man into the familiar courtyard. Once inside the old man welcomed us and pointed out Al Aqsa Mosque. Satisfied in his success at taking two Muslim girls on one of the most significant pilgrimages they can make, he left out the gate.

We stood in silence staring at each other before we broke out laughing. Here we were at one of the most worshipped places, where thousands of Christian pilgrims are denied entry every day, especially on Fridays such as today when no tourists are permitted in due to Muslim prayer. In fact, many Christians have covered their heads and tried lying to get in (hence the recitation test). We had been lead there, and despite our drawn out resistance, been forced into the sanctuary.We took one last walk around the grounds then exited through a different gate.

Later that day, as we wandered through the mystical old city, we unintentionally started down one of the many small roads that end at one of the gates into the too familiar mound.

“Closed. Muslims only” came the call like a broken record.

“We know.” we giggled as our response puzzled the guard. We turned around. “All roads lead to Al Aqsa” became our old city wanderings mantra.

All roads lead to Al Aqsa.

Hello Tequila Produced Darkness, My Old Friend

*More brilliance from Ben! Enjoy!*
I view guest posts like the American military views illegal wars – one is never enough. So I return to you. Triumphantly, I would like to think, but as the only genuine obstacle I can really claim to be triumphing over is my own inherent laziness it seems like something of an empty statement. Once more, then, I invade this small section of the “blogosphere” in order to ejaculate my own personal brand of sarcasm and attempted wit into your eagerly reading eyes.

You’ve missed me, though, haven’t you? Admit it. You publicly pretended to be offended, disturbed or even uninterested in my last piece here but secretly you’ve been desperately waiting, hoping, hiding under the bedsheets late at night with the crumpled up printout of my last contribution, reading and re reading it by torchlight before crying yourself to sleep, wondering if my words of genius would ever return to this dusty old website. Well fear not, for here I am, metaphorically wiping the tears from your eyes and tucking you in for the night in a way that blurs the line between “comforting” and “creepster”..

So as Sara continues to entertain us with her constant invitations to fellate her and offers the culture in which she is living the respect that her moral relativism demands by founding Nablus’ first strip club I thought I’d attempt to give you all a little more insight into the life we live here. I’d like to tell you that it’s a docile, intellectual environment of friendly cohabitation and stimulating, respectful conversation. But I’d be lying, you’d be bored and Sara would be horribly misrepresented. So let’s dig for the juicy, uncensored truth instead.

Perfect vodka. I’d like to recommend it to you but the honesty of the recommendation would be somewhat akin to recommending a meth habit or the film “Panic Room”. And much like those things, perfect vodka may seem a good idea at the time but you’ll inevitably spend the rest of your life scarred by your experience, regretting your decision and suppressing the nightmares that it will undoubtedly produce. My introduction to the substance came through Sara, of course. On our first trip to Ramallah to procure the alcohol that is forbidden in the area in which we live I had picked up a couple of bottles of wine. Sara, on the other hand, rejected any thought of purchasing anything with an alcohol content of less than 40% and went straight towards the perfect. The price tag, considerably cheaper than any other spirit in the shop, didn’t seem to serve as the warning that it should have, nor did the fact that it was sold in 1..75 litre bottles, and before long we were sitting around the kitchen table imbibing the first of many bottles of this poison. Sara has been keeping a collection of the empty bottles. She will photograph this obscene assortment of hollow receptacles in order, no doubt, to remind herself when she reaches old age and senility, of the profound cultural and human experiences she took with her from this most troubled of regions. Most amusingly, one of the bottles has a written warning etched onto it forbidding the contents from being touched as the bottle was to last Sara between the time of writing and her upcoming birthday. Three more bottles were purchased in that time and the empty threat scrawled upon the glass of that bottle has simply become further evidence of the level of alcoholism necessary to survive as a foreigner in Nablus.

“You’re my shot manager”. She’ll forever regret those words and rightly so. Not only because the very idea of the challenge I was to manage for her proved to be her own undoing but also because, as every bad manager does, I put too much pressure on my charge too early, assuming she had more about her than proved the case. Backtrack. An explanation. Sara turned 21 two days ago. Where I come from this often means you celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first time you got drunk in public but Sara’s homeland likes to wrap their children in cotton wool for a little longer and so she was now of legal drinking age in the United States. Someone, some time before her birthday, had mentioned the fine tradition of attempting to drink 21 shots of liquor in order to mark and celebrate this landmark. Sara had decided to accept the challenge.
So, on the morning of the day itself I awoke, blurry eyed and groggy headed, and made my way, ape-man like as I am always prone to be at any point before midday, to Sara’s sleeping space. I flung open the door to her room(well, as much as it’s possible to fling open a sliding door), wished her a happy birthday and demanded she drink her first shot of the day with me. She willingly agreed, notched the first one up on the scoreboard and professed further willingness to complete the next twenty. It was at this point she uttered that foolish phrase. “You’re my shot manager”.

“I’m your what?”

“My shot manager, you’ll do an excellent job”. Unfortunately for her my management skills, in any situation, are pretty much entirely lacking. It’s not that I don’t take my responsibilities seriously (Well, it kind of is) or that I’m not entirely trustworthy and honest (Again, I’m actually not) it’s more that my unique management style of “leave everything alone and hope it works out for the best” just doesn’t work as some kind of universally applicable formula. I’m sure if I was asked to oversee a smoothly running, profitable business with 100% employee satisfaction and no prospects for economic downturn on the horizon I’d do wonderfully. On the other hand, emergency medicine is probably never going to be for me. I’m pretty sure this laid back style would have qualified me to run FEMA under the last US President. In any case, it’s employment in the management of Sara’s alcohol intake led to near disastrous results. The question “Hey shot manager, should I take another shot?” was nearly always met with a reply in the affirmative. Where such a reply was lacking the closest I got to dissuasion was to offer a “Do whatever you think’s best”. As many of you who know Sara will attest, Sara usually thinks another shot is best.

By half ten in the morning she had done 8 and was assembling the rest of her flatmates around the circular kitchen table in order to indulge in playing card based drinking games. By eleven she had fallen out of her chair and on to the floor. Getting back up was proving an issue. By midday the house had unanimously voted to prevent Sara in her attempts to leave and wander round this dry city in such an inebriated state. (I say unanimously, Sara did actually attempt to vote against the motion but her vote was disqualified on the basis that she was a drunken mess). Now, to me an arrest record is nothing to be ashamed of and Sara’s 21 years without a single handcuffing (I speak only in relation to encounters with law enforcement agents, obviously her side gig as a dominatrix has seen her get very familiar with many pairs of handcuffs) only speaks of a lack of experience to my mind. So in any normal setting I would have been handing her the car keys, topping up her glass and convincing her we needed to go and climb in the with the zebras at the nearest zoo but Nablus isn’t really that kind of place and if I am to be responsible for Sara losing her criminal conviction virginity then even I, with all my relaxed management skills, can recognise that it might be best to secure one somewhere where it’s not to be dealt with by the Palestinian Authority. Eventually she passed out on the sofa somewhere in mid afternoon, committing the cardinal sin of sobering up and spending the second half of her birthday hungover and unable to complete the last seven shots that would have seen her complete the challenge.. She blames her shot manager. Her shot manager was unavailable for comment at the time, shuffling off into the distance and muttering something about “bloody lightweights” under his breath.

Sara’s birthday came and went. And then so did Sara. Deserting us like a litter of unwanted puppies, thrown from the window of a moving car (What? How do you get rid of pets in your country?). She cast us aside and departed last weekend, leaving us with nothing to remember her by except painful memories, scabies and the extortionate future cost of the counselling it will require to deal with our abandonment issues. She’ll undoubtedly go on to great things, a career in law and politics beckons for a woman whose single minded determination and ambition would be almost guaranteed to see her become President were it not for the inherent misogyny of Western political systems and those photos she’ll mistakenly let someone take in a few years on the basis that he’ll “never show them to anyone”. But regardless of where she ends up I’m sure one day, as I search the floor of some mosquito ridden guest house in Amazonian Bolivia for a spare coin that would see me able to eat for the day, I’ll look up at the dusty, antique, black-and-white television in the corner to see Sara’s face as some off screen commentator praises her for doing something genuinely worthwhile, altruistic and significant with her time and efforts. And I’ll cough roughly, spit out a load of tar stained mucus onto the dusty wooden floor and announce to no one in particular: “I’m her shot manager”.