Category Archives: Nablus

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

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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.

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”.

I am Woman!

This is dedicated to my beautiful girls featured here! My lovely roommates in Amman,Lena and Kate, who taught me that this song can cure any heartache! My current roommates who have had to hear this song about 5 million times over the past few months,   and to the amazing women in my life!

I present “I Am Woman” by the lovely ladies of Ms. Sara’s TFP class! (Song sung in their second language without the vocals on the track!)

Teaching

“Habbibi! Habbibi! Habbibi!” She calls as she runs up and kisses me on both cheeks.  “Ms. Sara, Arabic?” She asks if she can speak in Arabic.

“Ah” I respond. And then I am swept into my daily Arabic practice, and myupdate on 10-year-old drama.

The large metal gate at the entrance of the school

The large metal gate at the entrance of the school

Every day I arrive at the gate to our school to unlock the door around 2:15, and everyday there are already 2 or 3 young girls anxiously waiting for our cheek-kiss greeting and to be let through the schools massive metal gate.

Aiashia, the school we teach at (Whose name has about every vowel sound in the Arabic language making it a foreigner’s nightmare to pronounce) has a tall wall of about 30 feet surrounding it on all sides, with equally extravagant flowering trees lining the wall, which provides an excellent haven concealed from the busy streets, a secret garden if you will, where these lovely ladies can safely be themselves without the fear of an unwanted male stare or judging elder.

Aside from the male security guard and our bosses, no men are permitted within the school grounds. The basketball court is at the center of a courtyard. The actual building is a horseshoe shape with about 2 dozen classrooms emptying out directly into the cement courtyard.

As students filter in they bounce between my classroom and Ms. Amy’s giggling about their day, listening to the music, and emptying their ever inquisitive minds of whatever questions they had stored for us through the day. The classrooms are hallow, and echo loudly. The desks sit two people, and each day, I drag them from their traditional rows to a dining room table esque form, only to drag them back to their original place at the end of the day. The drawings on the desk testify to what my students nag about every day. “School is boring.” I laugh. Some things are the same even on the other side of an ocean in the middle of an occupation.

To give you a general idea

a of how our classes are run I will give you a few examples of my favorite activities we have done.

1. The restaurant- Amy and I quickly learned that food and learning should go hand in hand. My class received a nicely written invitation to the Princess Restaurant, and the next day the two classes gathered to find a classroom that had been magically turned into a restaurant with common desks transformed into the most classy tables with the addition of vases of wild flowers, and only the freshest and most classy food in town (Strawberries, humus, and cookies!). The girls were the waitresses, the hostesses, and of course the hungry patrons!

2. Songs!- We are encouraged to use songs as a way of increasing our girls speaking speed, so this semester my girls started off with “I am Woman” then went to “Hold On” by B*Witched and are finishing off with “Firework” by Katy Perry. I tried to stick with motivating songs. I was so proud yesterday when I gave each person in the class a solo, and each girl had the confidence to sing by themselves. I think it attests to the safe zone that Amy and I have worked so hard to create at the school. The girls at Aiashia have really become a family, and to me, that’s more valuable than any strides they have made in mastering the English language.

3. Sports- After each class we run about 30 minutes of sports. This has typically taken the form of basketball since some brilliant architect placed the basketball hoops directly in front of the soccer goals. Some days we have played hide and seek, in which, the full circle around the large building turns each round into a high-speed chase of who can sprint in a circle faster than the person who is it. A few days I have taught the girls some Taekwondo and self-defense which went over really well.

4. Plays- Amy and I both enjoyed doing dialogs with our girls. Mine did two Dr. Seuss scripts, the Lorax and Yertle the Turtle, though Amy takes the cake on this endeavor. Her girls did the Three Billy Goats Gruff. This included desks being made into a bridge that the goats could walk across and the troll could hide under, teaching ten-year olds to charge with their fingers in the shape of goat horns, and of course a lot of “Trippity, trap, trippity, trap!” I proudly made my guest appearance as the Big Billy Goat, but was out acted by the well mastered Troll voice of little Tala.

The program has no specific curriculum which has allowed me to mold my class as I see fit. This has eased my concerns a bit about being a language imperialist simply spreading my language to these kids who meanwhile have bigger problems, thanks in large part to financial contributions to their occupying force from my government. As you can see, I still think about it a lot, but I am proud to say that I believe my classroom has become a place of joint learning and mutual growth between all the students and myself as well.

I have 3 more days of teaching and then I think I am done teaching ESL forever, but I hope to stay in touch with these lovely ladies who will never know the extent to which they have helped me.

The Victims

In an article I wrote recently for the annual Newsletter for the International Club at our school, I recalled the events of my first border crossing from Amman to Nablus across the Sheik Hussein Bridge this past October.

I concluded with the following:

“This story is neither the calmest nor the most provoking one I could share. Aadi, عادي , is the Arabic word used for “normal” or “standard.”

When a sound bomb, an empty explosive that creates a massive boom that is used as a fear tactic by Israeli military, went off during class one of my girls said to me “Aadi”.

When we asked a local boy if we could spray-paint the massive concrete wall that divides the Arab lands from those currently controlled by Israel, including some settlements outside of the Green line, he said Aadi.

My experience on the border that day was about the same as each other time I crossed, and when my other friends with Arab names and heritages tried to cross. This crossing was Aadi.

I am not trying to demonize any party in this conflict, but simply pose the question: what are the repercussions for any society, when constant presence of a military becomes Aadi, the norm? A 18 year old girl with an M4 Assault rifle: Aadi, Roads blocked by equally young boys with even more ammunition: Aadi. Fighter jets flying overhead in formation: Aadi.

Occupation has become so ingrained in every life here, that the children don’t wince at the presence of a gun or look at the planes in the sky.”

Since pressing send on the email with my article, I had pushed this thought to the back of my mind, yet today my house mates and I had a heart-twisting reminder of the violent culture that is so pervasive in Nablus society.

“We have a dog” he said as he awoke me from my nap.

Well, similar words had been said multiple times in this household.

“We have frogs” because a kid at school needs us to take care of them.

“We have a bunny,” correction- “We have 2 bunnies.” When the kids at the private school my roommates works at had taken a field trip to Jericho, been permitted to purchase rabbits, then returned them to school at the insistence of less than thrilled parents.

Yet, the announcement of a dog was accompanied by a serene facial expression, and a tone that implied a story worth hearing.

His ears had become healed over stubs on the top of his head, surgically removed by a knife and a human hand. His tail had reached the same fate, only more recently, so its weak body had not yet patched over this wicked damage. His eyes showed resignation and terror. He displayed no will to fight, no bark, growl, or showing of the teeth, even as six humans, (no different from those who had caused him this pain) sat watching him cower in silence.

Immediately, I felt rage at the street kids who would throw rocks at, pee on, and cut up a living thing. While too often people cite the Quran for permitting violence, everything I had read in the Quran, been taught in Sunday school and from my dad so strongly condemned this senseless violence. Yes, according to the Quran animals are on earth for humans to use, yet halal meat, meat butchered according to religious expectations, must include the animal being killed mercifully, without seeing the blade, and to be treated humanely up to being butchered. Surely, the treatment this dog had endured should be shunned by a conservative Muslim community. Then my concluding question from the article I wrote came into my mind.

I began to imagine the kind of life a child must have had to cut the ear off a dog. Of course, I will never know the exact life of that child, but it isn’t so hard to speculate. Most street shabab are around 13 years old. When they were about 4 years old these children experienced an intifada that I can only hope most people live their entire lives without witnessing. Israel occupied the city invading homes. Fatah, the prevalent political party in Nablus developed street militias consisting of young Palestinian men. These militias meekly opposed the Israeli forces. The members of those gangs, many of which finished the intifada in a cell or a grave, were these children’s fathers and brothers. After the physical presence of Israeli militants in the city subsided, leaving more than 500 dead and 3,000 wounded in a city the size of Pueblo, it still remained almost impossible to travel to the city due to road closure. Until recent years it was impossible to drive into the city, and people entering would have to cross a road barrier to board a bus or another car. This suffocated the already war-injured economy of Nablus, that had once dominated the Palestinian market with Olive Oil and Olive Oil Soap.

The dog was found in the old city, one of the poorest areas of town. Martyr posters line the walls with young faces who have died in opposition to the occupation. Faces from 63 years ago, 44 years ago, 10 years ago, last week. New posters are plastered over the old.

Many mornings Ben, or as you know him, Writhnar the Destroyer of Worlds, would announce to those gathered at the kitchen table, the news he had read from his Nablus search in Google news.

“Another Nabulsi was killed outside Nablus last night by settlers.” Like a broken record his words were too often the same. Another young man killed.

Drink tea at a friend’s house, learn of his jail time. Call on a neighbor; learn of how their house had been invaded by the IDF to use as a lookout point. Men born into, raised, and dying in war-torn streets, taught to fight, as a brother, father, friend, enemy….falls.

Should it be surprising then that these men hit their wives and their kids? No, it isn’t because the Quran says you can beat your wife (only with light force that doesn’t leave a mark according to most translations.) Young boys showing up to school with bruises on their bodies. Is it from their father? Or another street boy who was hit by his father?

Just yesterday a boy pulled a knife on one of our female teachers who worked in one of the refugee camps. Earlier in the semester, a student pulled a knife on another student for insulting his mom.

Though, as I focus too hard on the traces of violence, I fear I am demonizing this deep-rooted and astonishing culture. Nabulsi people are some of the most hospitable and morally ground people I have ever met. Aside from being deeply rooted in their faith, (which I view as a testament to their morality, yet others argue explicates the violence) the people here have a strong sense of community and family, work hard in school and show genuine interest in the wellbeing of strangers. Violence is in fact the break from the norm that stands out like an infectious disease-spreading over its victim. It is a foreign specimen intoxicating the local breed, and its victims are everywhere, including curled up in what was once a rabbit hutch on our porch.

 

http://www.euronablus.eu/eunab/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&id=8&Itemid=70