Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Closing Remarks

Since the previous piece was written for a specific audience within a specific word limit, I feel I should add a few more thoughts about my experience in Palestine and Israel before I put this blog to bed. That is, until the next Middle Eastern adventure—I'm positive there will be another one.

I would be lying if I told you that I went there as a political activist. I didn't, although I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so judging by the tone of my inital posts. Really, I went there as a person looking for new experiences in a part of the world that I find incredibly interesting. And of course, being an aspiring journalist, I decided I would write about it. As far as work goes, the writing came first and what little activism I did came second. Such is the egotism which many writers share.

I was thinking I would return home charged up and ready to dedicate my life to helping the Palestinians, perhaps by educating my fellow Americans on the matter with the hard-earned credibility of someone that actually went there. And maybe some sort of campaign like that is in my future. But that requires a stationary dedication, and what this trip did above all was make me want to see more things and meet more people. As far as the Middle East goes, Syria is at the top of my list right now. As for the world in general, I have many places to stay thanks to the amazing network of international folks I met there. Switzerland, here I come!

The fact that things seemed so...normal out in Palestine also had the subtle effect on implanting this "It's not that bad" mentality inside of me which softened my burning indignation at the whole affair. I know that this perception is not accurate, that it is a totally different reality for a Palestinian in occupied Palestine than a white international. And I know things could easily get worse at the drop of a hat—as they have before. But I still, almost all of my memories from Palestine have been pleasant, of going to weddings and bars and the juice shop on the corner, watching movies at the French-German cultural center or playing basketball at the church. Even the tours and exhibits of some of the most fucked-up things imaginable were enjoyable because of the company that I was with. I will look back on this trip fondly, perhaps a bit too fondly.

Now back in America where alcohol and skin are plentiful once more, I am already feeling the itch to return to the Holy Land. You'd be surprised at how much happier and freer you can feel without most of your possessions. And now they're all back around me, needing attention and maintenance. The bills need to be paid, this rat-infested old house needs to be cleaned, and deadlines need to be met. Immediately thrown back into the grind, it was if I never left—luckily I've got plenty of keepsakes tacked up on the wall behind this computer monitor to remind me that yes, I really was there. And someday, hopefully soon, I'll be back.

Thanks for reading!


A couple quick plugs:

*Keep an eye out for a book titled Fast Times in Palestine, written by a fellow American, Pam Olson. I'm admittedly envious of Pam because she's actually doing what I've only dreamed of: writing a book about her experiences in Palestine and making presentations about her time there to American audiences, including the staff of Google earlier this year.

*My friend Rami, who so graciously gave me his entire bedroom (along with his wardrobe) for the last ten days of my stay, is part of an exciting Palestinian grassroots group called the Dalia Association, which accepts no money from the international community. This is done in order to preserve the Palestinian character which is often diluted when funds with strings attached are presented for the "benefit" of the people. Check out their website at to see some of the wonderful things that they're doing.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

From America, Looking Back at the Holy Land

The following piece was originally published in Flagpole Magazine.

Before I went to Palestine and Israel – also known collectively as the “Holy Land” – I was partial to the Palestinians because of the suffering they endure under Israeli occupation. Soon I realized the error in this thinking: I only appreciated them for the circumstances they live in, not for who they actually are. So after supporting the Palestinians from afar for so long, I decided to live in the Palestinian city of Ramallah over the summer, partly to test myself. Would I actually like these people that I supposedly cared about so much?

In short: yes, I really did. Palestinians are some of the most caring, hospitable, curious people I have ever met. Many a time walking the streets of Ramallah or Nablus, I would get a hearty “Welcome!” from a person I had never met and would likely never see again. Whenever I sat down in a Palestinian home – whether it was a modern, well furnished structure or a dusty tent with mattresses for seats – I was invariably offered tea or coffee. Everyone seemed to have wanted to know my name and where I was from. And to think that I was told I’d be killed out here!

It was fitting that I was handed a copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia during my stay there. At some point on the long bus ride from Ramallah to Jerusalem, I came across this passage: “A Spaniard's generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.” If the “Spaniard” was replaced with “Palestinian” in this passage, there’d be no truer description of the people that I had the good fortune of living amongst.

Their qualities rubbed off on me – for example, it was in Palestine that I learned to share. Having lived with unrelated roommates for the past six years, I was accustomed to having my own shelf of food from which I would prepare my own meals which I would eat on my own. Yet in Palestine it is borderline insulting to eat in front of somebody without offering them some of what you’re having - fruits, cookies, and crackers were regularly thrust in front of me by the natives. This kind of unconditional generosity, free of the soul-deadening rationalizations that we Americans are so used to performing, not only compelled me to change my own behavior but also restored some of my lost faith in humanity – cliché as that sounds. And judging by the fact that I saw not one homeless person in Palestine (compare this to Israel, a country with nearly ten times more per capita income than the West Bank - and also many more homeless people), I have a strong feeling that this culture of charity is not merely a gift reserved for foreigners, but a strong social glue that has allowed the Palestinians to persevere under occupation for so long.

Of course, there are less appealing things about Palestinian culture. Their curiosity is charming and endearing, but there are times when you just want to sit in the park without being bothered. Their caring and hospitality is touching, but can also be intrusive and even clingy – true privacy is rare in Palestine. And as much as I rag on Western culture, I never appreciated it more when I learned about how relationships work out here. If you’re a Palestinian man and the father of the girl you want to marry decides he doesn’t like you, it’s over - no matter how deeply in love you two (you and the girl, that is) really are. And you’ll probably never get to speak to her again. Want to have a woman stay overnight, even if she’s just a friend? Forget about it.

Yet despite these unsavory aspects of Palestinian culture, I still fell in love with the Palestinian people. In my eyes, they ceased to be an abstract victim and instead became a multitude of real people who not only weep and grieve, but laugh and sing and dance like you’ve never seen anybody dance before.

What about Israel? I was there, although not as often as I had planned. Surely I already knew that traveling between two hostile entities on a regular basis would be no piece of cake. But I soon learned that the political NGO I was volunteering with had mostly research-based work to offer me – not something I came halfway across the world to do -- so I largely abstained from going to their Jerusalem-based office, especially because the trip involved an arduous chain of bus rides and a trip through the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, which is like a more draconian version of airport security. Thus my trips into Israel became more of an occasional travel than a professional commute.

What I will say about Israel is that its own suffering is evident through the palpable fear and tension in the air. The amount of automatic weapons you’ll see on an average day in an average Israeli city is staggering – far more than I saw in any Palestinian city. Every bus station in Israel bristles with metal detectors; even going to a gay pride parade in Jerusalem or a shopping center in Tel Aviv required me to empty my pockets, spread my arms, and consent to being patted down by a security officer. And it doesn’t help that Israel’s leaders are always exaggerating their precarious position - when I arrived, I had just missed what the government had deemed “Doomsday Drills.”

Politically, my views changed only in that the solution to the conflict now seems more elusive than ever. The internationally agreed-upon solution is “two states for two people,” based on borders that existed before the Six Day War of 1967. But now, knowing the size, multitude and utter permanence of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as the strong Palestinian connection to many villages that now lie in Israel proper, I am inclined to think that one unified state would be the most just solution. But Israel and the Palestinian territories are so, so different that it boggles the mind to think of how this single state would actually work.

So if you asked me about my trip to Palestine, I would depress you with talk about borders or peace plans or statehood. Instead I would tell you about the Palestinian boys on the street hustling various cheap candies, or about the complexity of the Arabic language that is both maddening and alluring. I would talk about the gorgeous sunsets that overlooked gorgeous landscapes dotted with olive trees, the mouth-watering smell of a sizzling hunk of shawerma, the unmistakable scent of Turkish coffee, the marvelous texture of Dead Sea mud, the unappreciated beauty of the Golan Heights, the perfection of Mediterranean water, and on and on and on, until I reach the inevitable point of telling you that you should come with me the next time I go.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Nettles Nasser: Magnetism Personified in Palestine

I first met Nettles Nasser while standing in the queue at Qalandia checkpoint, where he had garnered the backwards gaze of a cluster of people waiting to hustle through the turnstile. "Barack Hussein Obama is my president!" he shouted to the Israeli guard tower to our left, holding his American passport above his head, ostensibly hoping that his status as an American would make the line move quicker. Thankfully, there was no response from the Israeli silhouette peering down at us. Seeing that I was obviously a foreigner, Nettles turned and struck up a conversation with me, about something I can't remember—perhaps I was just the first inductee into his small American club.

Nettles himself is Palestinian by heritage, but completely American by nature—his accent (and hyperassertive attitude) is like that of any New Yorker. Turns out he was born and raised in Patterson, New Jersey, a place which boasts the second largest Arab-American community in the U.S. after Dearborn, Michigan.

After a good twenty minutes waiting at Qalandia and another forty spent on the bus from Qalandia to Jerusalem, we had spent enough time together to for me to find out a few more things about him. He said he was trying to start up a boxing gym in Ramallah for Palestinian youth; back in the States he had trained amateur and professional boxers for over a decade and a half. He was aspiring boxer himself once, until he fell off of a ride at a water park and sustained some nerve damage that effectively ended his own boxing career.

I was intrigued enough to keep in contact with him. So a month and a half after our first meeting, we met again at the Minarah in central Ramallah. The following narrative should serve as a good illustration of Nettles' personality.

As I approach the Minarah, I call Nettles on his cell phone and tell him that I'll be there in less than a minute. We agree to meet at the Arab Bank. "I'm wearing a red shirt," he tells me. Soon I'm at the Arab bank and there are plenty of red shirts floating by, but none of them are filled with anybody resembling Nettles. I flounder around for a bit until a familiar Yankee cap catches my eye about fifty meters across the roundabout. I approach, and sure enough it's Nettles, wearing a black t-shirt. "What's with this red shirt business?" I ask him as we shake hands, mine somewhat limp with confusion. "Ah man, I wanted to come up behind you and scare you, but I couldn't find you," he says.

I had mentioned going somewhere to smoke an argeela and chill for awhile, so we begin to walk in the direction of the Ramallah First Group, a place somewhat like the Palestinian version of the YMCA, except with much more smoking. Somehow we get into a conversation about women. "I'm definitely not the prettiest guy in the world, but I get with good-looking girls. You know why? One of 'em said it best: 'You've got a magnetic personality.'"

If you didn't know Nettles, you would think he was cocky. Maybe he is a little bit, but you could also say that he was merely expressing the truth, evidenced by a fifteen minute walk more jam-packed with human interaction than I had experienced in Palestine thus far. In between talking with a Palestinian from Texas and the first black couple I had seen in Ramallah, he filled me in on his past, ranging from the tragic water park accident that left him temporarily paralyzed to the time he met Beyoncé Knowles, and in true Nettles fashion, asked her to come over to him for the autograph, rather than vice versa—something that true Beyoncéphiles wouldn't have to think twice about.

Undoubtedly some of this magnetism is generated by Nettles himself, but some of it also seems cosmically coincidental in nature. I'll give you a couple examples. Only a minute into our walk, Nettles and I happen to come across a scuffle between two Palestinian teens. He takes a fatherly stance between the two boys, with an arm around each, and tells them that Palestinian brothers should not fight amongst each other, then says a couple things to each in Arabic as the boys cool off. As we continue along—then double back the direction we came after realizing that original destination would be too far on foot—a young boy of about eight, bolting through the crowd excitedly, just happens to take a hard fall right at Nettles' feet. The boy, after remaining on the ground for a moment in a stunned, wow-did-that-really-just-happen mode, brushes himself off without a whimper and looks around at his audience. "Aw, habibi," says Nettles affectionately, then leads the kid to a cooler at a store next door and offers to buy him a soda. "I love my Palestinian boys," he says after the beaming boy walks off with his hard-earned orange soda. "They're the toughest kids on Earth; they don't cry for nothin."

At that point I reflected on how much more interesting my life would be if I walked the streets with Nettles all the time.

Finally we arrive at an adequate meeting/smoking place, the Stars & Bucks at the Minarah where we had originally met. As I sit down to my hookah and Nettles his iced coffee (he doesn't smoke or drink), I ask him what brought him here. At first, he says the Israeli assault on Gaza motivated him: "What I saw was unacceptable." But not long after, he gives me a more personal (and more believable) explanation for his coming to Palestine. "I saw a video of my grandmother, she got frail, I haven't been here in nine years. She's sick. So I came here because of her and because of what happened in Gaza." Thus Nettles is currently staying with his grandmother in the village of Bayt I'nan, about nine miles northwest of Jerusalem.

He then moved on to the subject of teaching young Palestinians to box. "These kids are bona fide fighters. Society has made them the way they are."

I soon learn that what Nettles wants to do is not just start a boxing gym for Palestinian youth, but to put together a Palestinian boxing team that would compete in the Olympic Games. "I really believe [that if] these guys get a gold medal winner, it'll open the doors for them to have their freedom, to have their state, to do something big," he says to me. At first I think I've waded into some terrible tragedy; that Nettles hadn't even realized that Palestine was not even technically a country and thus they would be ineligible for the Olympics and therefore Nettles is wasting lots of his time and money. But I find out later that Palestine is in fact recognized as a country by the International Olympic Committee and that Palestinian athletes competed in the 2008 summer Olympics. I'm guessing it was easy to overlook, considering that there were only four total Palestinian athletes, none of whom advanced to any televised medal events.

Currently heading the Palestine Olympic Committee is a man named Jibril Rajoub, formerly Yasser Arafat's National Security Adviser and now the man that holds Nettles' fate in his hands. Nettles shows me his folder of newspaper clippings, recommendations, and resumes that he aims to show Mr. Rajoub when they finally meet. The optimal outcome for Nettles is for Mr. Rajoub to fork over some Palestinian cash to build a gym and maintain a training program that would produce Olympic-caliber Palestinian boxers by the time that 2012 rolls around.

Time is not on Nettles' side: for the past few months, he’s been living off of money earned back in the States. He spends a few hours a day at a downtown Ramallah gym coaching a handful of young men in the art of boxing, but he offers this service pro bono. He says that once he runs out of money, he may have to go home.

After talking a bit more about religion, politics, and music—Nettles spent at least two full minutes trying to find out the name of a Jay-Z and Coldplay music video that was on one of the cafe TV screens—he took me to the downtown gym where he coaches aspiring boxers. Whether he does it because he has nothing better to do while waiting for Mr. Rajoub, or because he has a big heart, I don't know. I suspect it's a combination of both. Although I had a devastating file mix-up that made over half my pictures from Palestine disappear, these two survived:

Nettles Nasser.

Nettles and his Olympic hopefuls. No smiles allowed here.

Now that I’m back in the States, I'm keeping in contact with Nettles over Facebook. I can imagine the drama of the wait—one day his prospects look "bleak," while the next he's hopeful that he'll be able to meet with Rajoub. I can only wish him the best, because by his estimates, he should be out of money right now.

Keep at it, Nettles. I'm really looking forward to seeing those Palestinian flag boxing trunks come 2012.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Not-So-Palestinian Attraction in Palestine

After catching the triumphant final showing of the play "Fragments of Palestine" at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, two friends and I were lucky enough to hitch a ride back to Nablus in a van piloted by the ambassadors of the French-German cultural center in Ramallah. Although I knew we would have the liberty taking a more scenic route back in our private van, nothing prepared me for the scene that we encountered on the outskirts of Nablus.

Among the derelict ruins of an amusement park, situated between a deserted Israeli checkpoint and dungheap-ridden mountainside, was a massive old jetliner propped up for display.

What kind of airplane is this? Where did it come from? How did it get here? Who owned this jet? Is it Israeli?

I asked my father, a quarter-century veteran of the airline industry and lifetime aviation enthusiast, if he could help me do some detective work as to the history of this plane. He says it's a Boeing 707, no doubt, but probably due to the subpar quality and quantity of my photos (my judgment, not his) it's hard to know more. So he posed the question on a popular aviation forum. A couple folks have guessed that this may be the B707-328 that formerly belonged to the Israeli Air Force and was supposed to be converted into a restaurant in Moshav Elifelet, but has its current status listed as "Part out, derelict at TLV [Tel Aviv Airport]." Did some bizarre business dealing bring the plane from Tel Aviv to Nablus without the site's knowledge?

It seems so. Some further digging found a webpage which details the status of all of the 707's owned by the Israeli air force.40 Sure enough, a plane with registration number 118/4X-JYK—the same jet discussed in the previous paragraph—is listed as "wfu Nablus 2000." In the acronym-heavy world of aviation, "wfu" stands for "withdrawn from use."

Assuming this is indeed the same plane, would some intrepid journalist—someone who is spending much more time in Palestine than myself and has at least some knowledge of Arabic—like to take up the challenge of finding out how this plane changed from Israeli to Palestinian hands? The best way would be to hunt down a man named Baslan Al-Fares , or his cousin, 'Abd a-Salam al-Fares, who used to run the amusement park that now lies barren because Israeli restrictions on movement made it a near-impossibility for many Palestinians to get there:

Because of the difficulties in reaching Al-Badhan, people have stopped coming to the park and we were forced to close it. In order to reach the park from Ramallah, for example, it would require passing 4 checkpoints: 'Atara, Za'atara, Huwara, and Al-Badhan. It's a continuous nightmare that takes an entire day and is not a pleasant trip.

To me, it's both tragic and exciting that there seems to be so many stories in Palestine that remain untold to the rest of the world. Don't get me wrong: I am definitely not the first blogger to touch on this derelict park with its derelict jet—for example, I found a post regarding this on the blog of Skip Schiel, a photographer who less than a year ago came to the University of Georgia to exhibit some of his shots from Palestine.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Differences Between Here and There, Pt. 2

And now for the second installment of my series on the miscellaneous little differences between Israel/Palestine and America.

- Since this is the Middle East, it doesn't really rain. During the summer it never rains. I wonder if the weather channels out here just close up shop when summer arrives; I've had over two months here and not felt a single raindrop. Since water is precious out here, and since Israel is not afraid to collectively punish the Palestinian population for individual crimes, 39 almost every Palestinian rooftop is adorned with large black tanks with reserves of water in the event that Israel decides to turn off the tap. In Palestine the water delivery system is much less modern (and hence less dependable); in East Jerusalem, for example, the water infrastructure dates back nearly a half century to the Jordanian era. Depending on your political sympathies, this could be evidence of either Israeli apartheid or Palestinian laziness, though I haven't the information to make either judgment as of right now.

- Because of the constant sun out here, there is little need for a machine dryer when it comes to laundry. Everybody (in both Israel and Palestine) hangs their clothes out to dry, which has the effect of adding to the rustic charm of the place. Beware high winds, though: my brother's jeans ended up on an opposite rooftop after a forceful gust sent the whole drying rack toppling over.

- It's been awhile since I got my SAT scores, but I'm pretty sure that I didn't find out about them through a major newspaper. Here the results of the big SAT-esque test, called the Tawjihi, are published in Al-Ayyam, the second-largest daily in Palestine. The senior year of high school here is the most intensively difficult—unlike America, where the final year of high school ranges in character from honeymoon to joyride. But with great struggle comes great celebration upon success: my English lessons at Al-Am'ari were interrupted by fireworks the morning that the results were released. I've also been told by a rising Palestinian senior that elective classes simply do not exist and he'd be looking forward to going back to school a lot more if there were girls there—public schools out here are usually sexually segregated. Bummer.

-Does your city feature traffic cops like this guy? I think not. (Fast forward to the end for sentimental slow-motion!)

- If I'm surfing through radio stations back in the States, I will waste no time in skipping over the familiar drone of a pastor reading the Bible. But here in Palestine, the Qur'an is sung, and if done by a skilled vocalist, it is a truly beautiful sound to behold. When the call to prayer is issued through the megaphones bristling from the spire of the local mosque, the echoing song gives the whole moment a profound, lyrical quality that almost makes you want to convert to Islam in that very moment. In America it would be considered intrusive and tacky for a church to broadcast its sermon over a two mile radius with megaphones. But here, it’s not only expected but welcome—to me at least. (It is very possible that these fond feelings of mine only exist because I know I will spend no more than a few months here.) Interestingly enough, in Hebron, Israeli settlers attempt to drown out the call to prayer with patriotic Jewish songs blasted from loudspeakers of their own. It's a darkly comical experience, to say the least.

- Much earlier in my summer I had quoted my Swiss friend making this bold assertion: "There are no homeless people in Palestine." Surprisingly enough, that held up to be true as far as I can see. Throughout the course of my trip the only homeless people I've seen have been in Israel, a country which has a much higher per capita income than the occupied Palestinian territories and is lauded for being the only democracy in the Middle East. In Palestine I have not seen one single person slumped over in the street in a destitute manner that suggests that they have nowhere else to go. This is due to a complex cocktail of factors, but central to this phenomenon, I believe, is the Islamic faith. Islam strongly forbids drug use, which makes it much more difficult to find alcohol and any other illicit substances—which are so instrumental in keeping somebody homeless—around these parts. Also, as I mentioned before, people here are unconditionally generous and giving, no matter how little they have, which has roots in Islamic teachings. Thus, if you happen to see a beggar in Palestine, you can know for certain that this person is a scam artist. If only it were so easy to know in America.

- On a similar note, you won't find any gambling—at least out in the open—in Palestine. In Israel, however, orange booths vending lottery tickets can be counted on to appear once every few blocks. Would I be so presumptive to think that this paragraph and the previous one are related?

- Above is the police department located on Ein Misbah street, just outside of the Minarah. Notice the heavily political nature of the signage, something that you won’t find in the police departments of most other countries. You'll also learn in little time the three major political icons of the West Bank: Mahmoud Abbas, or "Abu Mazen" to the Arab world, the current president of the Palestinian Authority (at left above); Yasser Arafat, the iconic and now deceased Palestinian leader (at right above); and Marwan Barghouti, a man currently jailed by Israel who headed Fatah's armed branch during the Second Intifada and is widely believed to be elected the next Palestinian president—if he's ever released.

- Lastly, back to the question of alcohol: in Palestine, it's either sold in big "international" towns like Ramallah and Bethlehem, or it’s sold in the rare Christian village. Taybeh is the most famous of these Christian villages, seeing as it is home to the only brewery in Palestine. Nablus, a less-visited but much larger city, does not have any alcohol vendors whatsoever. On the other hand, Israel's rules regarding alcohol are as lax as that of any European city: when my brother and I were in Tel Aviv, we cracked open our tall boys and proceeded to drink on the streets.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Taste of Arabic Pop Culture in Palestine

One of the most depressing (or comforting) experiences that an American can have is to travel halfway across the world expecting (or fearing) an exotic, alien culture only to encounter the exact same cultural idols and hear the exact same mindless songs that happen to be dominating the American airwaves at the moment. The world largely seems to be following America's lead when it comes to popular culture, which may just be one of the most depressing developments of the 21st century—seeing ancient customs trampled under the onward march of narcissistic fantasies, reality discarded for the sake of a hologram, truth discarded for the sake of a lie. Perhaps Henry Miller had a divine flash of prophecy when he wrote this way back in 1930: "America is the very incarnation of doom. She will drag the whole world down to the bottomless pit."

Okay, so I still have some negativity issues.

Yet my faith in humanity was somewhat restored when I came here to Palestine and encountered a vibrant Arabic music scene. Not to say that it's not subject to the same market forces as American music—perhaps the most widely listened-to stuff here is just like the stuff back in America, meaning that the more popular it is, the dumber it probably is. But even if the lyrics somehow manage to scrape the bottom of the intellectual and moral barrel that America's popular music inhabits (L-l-l-lick it like a lollipop...), it still sounds more authentic; computers have not run amok on the landscape of Arabic music as they have back in the States. Not to mention that the male performers of Arabic songs actually sing—and beautifully—rather than shout.

At weddings and parties in Palestine, the music is usually accompanied by a robust dance known as dabke (pronounced DUB-KAH). Although I still haven't participated in a dabke session yet, it looks like the most enjoyable dance on earth. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your mates and, in a manner of touching fraternity, extend your arms outright to grasp their shoulders and they do the same. Then you let your legs do the rest as the line bounces and bends festively in different directions. I've seen a couple dabke shows so far, but my camera has been completely unable to handle the responsibility of taking an adequate picture in the Ramallah Cultural Palace, so the only image I have to offer of this amazing dance in action is a shot of the shabaab in Nablus kicking up dust with a particularly rowdy dabke session around a tricked-out car which unfortunately fell just outside the frame.

So let's get back to the music. What's popular in Palestine right now? Let's just say that the summer of 2009 belongs to Tamer Hosny. No poster is more prevalent on Palestinian streets than the one advertising Tamer's new album, and you know what? It's actually pretty good.

Below is a video of Tamer in action. It doesn't take much listening to realize that "habibi" is one his favorite words, which is the standard fare for any Arab singer. Though it literally translates to "my darling," the term "habibi" can roughly be equated to American pop's use of "baby" when used in a musical context. And while American pop seems obsessed with sex, Arabic pop is undoubtedly obsessed with love - although I won't discount the possibility that buried deep, deep within these songs may be some sort of erotic message.

Speaking of erotic messages, I had quite the unsettling experience on a bus full of fourth graders during a field trip from the English camp the other day. Please read on, it's not what it seems!

We were on our way to the swimming pool in the village of Bir Zeit. Since the trip took about a half hour, popular Arabic music videos were played over the bus's AV system for the kids to watch and sing along to while we waited to arrive. All of the music videos were obviously geared towards children, except for one by a Lebanese singer named Haifa Wehbe. Scantily clad in lingerie, she "plays" with a three year-old boy throughout the course of the video, feeding him, blowing bubbles with him, even bathing him with an air of sexuality that makes it quite obvious that the video is not really directed at the hearts of young boys, but the penises of grown men. Would anyone else consider the below video evidence of some sort of subtle, yet insidious child abuse?

Finally, I will say that although I have not spent nearly as much time in Israel, it seems to lack a comparably independent popular music culture—on all the Israeli buses I've ridden on, the music coming out of the speakers is usually in English and often something I've heard before. But let me stress that I am talking about popular music—I imagine that Israel has just as vibrant of an underground music scene as any other industrialized, middle-class country full of bored youth.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Palestinian Refugee's Dilemma

When someone asks me where I'm from, I answer with “Florida.” Although I was born in California and currently live in Georgia, I spent 17 out of my 23 years in the suburban swamp of east Orlando. I learned to ride a bike there, opened my Christmas presents there, went through puberty there, got my first car there, graduated from high school and college there...and on and on. It was where I was raised, where I had most of the experiences that made what I am today. Thus it seems logical to call Orlando, Florida the place that I am from—to me it's the most accurate answer.
On the other hand, when you ask a Palestinian where they’re from, you're likely to get the name of a village that neither they nor their own parents have ever set foot in. Not to say that there is no family lineage there—this village was almost assuredly a place that their grandparents fled or were kicked out of in the wake of Israeli advances during the wars of both 1948 and 1967. Take Haifa, for example. This port city is now the third-largest in Israel and was the site of considerable violence during the creation of the state in 1948. Due to this tumult, many Arab residents fled the town. By October of that year, Haifa had shed more than 90% of its Arab population, or around 56,000 people.
Now let's guess that over the course of the past sixty years, half of those people produced three children each. Each of those three children produced two children each. The result is hundreds of thousands of people descended from these original refugees from Haifa. No wonder every Palestinian I meet seems to be from there!
But wait, why is it that they say that they’re from Haifa, even if they've never been there and are not allowed to go there?
To address this heavy, complicated question, I should start with a quote from Elias Chacour, a Christian Palestinian who was pushed out of his home in the Galilee by Jewish forces prior to 1948:
Mobile Western people have difficulty comprehending the significance of the land for Palestinians. We belong to the land. We identify with the land, which has been treasured, cultivated, and nurtured by countless generations of ancestors. Some of our trees were planted more than a thousand years ago... Other trees in our village were closer to two thousand years old. People in our generation plant trees for their children's children.
If Chacour really is speaking for the majority of Palestinians in this regard (which I believe he is), then it is no surprise why Palestinians cannot forget about these places, the homes of their grandparents lined with olive trees rather than concrete walls.  More than three-quarters of a million people fled from places like these in the period preceding and during the 1948 war. These were villages located in what is now considered Israel proper, villages that once existed or perhaps still exist but with a different name and demographic makeup. Although the outline of a future Palestinian state is drawn around the West Bank and Gaza, virtually all Palestinians have a much broader geographical concept of what "Palestine" is.
Consequently, if you talk politics with a Palestinian or a hard-left international, you may not hear the name "Israel" once. When asked about this, they say that using this name legitimizes an illegitimate state based on ethnic cleansing; that it's ignores the huge amount of Palestinian history and heritage that lies in what has been claimed by Israel. So they choose to call it "'48" instead. Let me give you a couple examples.

Example 1 (Palestinian): "We have to get special permit to go into '48, which the Israelians* usually deny us."

Example 2 (hard-left international living in Palestine): "I have to go to '48 tomorrow to try and renew my visa."

If you were confused about why Israel is always asking for "recognition" as a Jewish state, or perhaps even more confused as to why Palestinians could not simply "recognize" Israel, perhaps this has made things a little clearer for you.
Over sixty years later, many of these refugees—and their children, and their children's children—still live in camps, in one of the longest temporary arrangements in the world. As I said before, these refugee camps are the economic equivalent to the "ghetto" in American cities. In these dilapidated U.N. buildings live people that are still, after sixty years, waiting to return to their homes. Many Palestinians still have the key to these old homes in Israel proper—hence the huge symbolic significance of the key seen on statues, posters, and artwork around these parts.
Is it respectable, understandable, admirable that these Palestinians still have not given up this hope of returning? Or, after sixty years, is it quixotic and self-destructive to maintain such unrealistic hopes? I think there is truth in both assertions, although I think the case for the second statement becomes stronger with each passing day. Especially considering that very, very few people would be able to return to their land and encounter it just as they left it. Their houses have likely been bulldozed, a new Israeli village could have been erected there, or possibly, an Israeli Jew and his family is living in the very home that their great-grandparents built. Like seeing a former lover in the arms of another man, it must be infuriating and saddening for a Palestinian to learn that his olive trees are being pruned by another man—and improperly!
Secondly, consider that the state of Israel is now old enough that generations of people have been born there, people who should bear no blame whatsoever for the plight of the Palestinians just as I should bear no blame for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. We have no control of where we are born and what we are born into. So if a Palestinian family was allowed to return to a patch of land and a home that their grandparents owned in the '40s, it may imply evicting a Jewish family, a family with children that would be confused as to why they now have to leave everything they know. Another mass of refugees would be created and the cycle of suffering would continue.
This remains one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Surely the Palestinians can claim a right of return, but can this right be exercised humanely, in a manner that treats everybody fairly? I'm not sure. In fact, it could leave both parties dissatisfied, especially the diaspora Palestinians who realize that "return" does not mean an actual return to their home but a permission slip to move into the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
But many of those in the camps still cling to this hope of returning to their land, despite the growing mountain of evidence that suggests the infinitesimally small odds of such fantasies actually coming true. The physical evidence of this is striking: the buildings in the refugee camps are not maintained, nor decorated save for political graffiti (see below for an example). The young man who led us through the Jenin refugee camp told us that the surroundings were kept purposefully shabby to serve as an omnipresent reminder that these are not their homes and thus any efforts to build a permanent community here would be forfeiting their real homes to the Israelis forever, which they could never do.
Is it worth living one's whole life waiting, in squalor, for something that may never occur? Is it worth subjecting your children to this condition for a political principle? I would say no. But remember how different our cultures are, especially when it comes to the perception of time. To me, the egocentric Westerner, the only time that matters is the span of my own lifetime on this earth—thus, sixty years is a long time to wait, a terrible waste of my lifetime. But when I present this thought to a Palestinian, the response usually goes something like this: "The Palestinians have been around for thousands of years. Sixty years is nothing."


This is one of the darker pieces in the Dheisheh refugee camp, which is chock full of depressing, macabre graffiti. Thanks to Paul Chambers for this photo; when I toured the camp—in Bethlehem, the grafitti capital of the West Bank—I was without my camera and this was one of the shots I wish I had taken.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Growing Up (Too) Fast in Ramallah

"One shekel. Please. Just one shekel."

You'll be lucky to walk from the main bus station in Ramallah to any destination in the city without hearing this sales pitch from some adolescent Palestinian boy waving a pack of gum or a bag of candy, doggedly following you, tugging on your shirt sleeve, persisting even after you've said "la" (Arabic for "no") more times than you can count on your two hands. Not only are these boys incredibly persistent, but intelligent: they cater their pitch to internationals, speaking English when the customer is obviously a foreigner.

To be honest, it's really not that much that these kids are asking for: one shekel equals only slightly more than 25 US cents. And you're not just giving money away—you're getting something out of it. So why not give them a break? Especially if these poor boys are so destitute that they're reduced to whittling away the golden years of youth hustling on the streets?

While it's rational to think that these Palestinian boys are doing such dreadfully soul-draining work out of necessity, I've been told many times by many people—both internationals and native Palestinians—that these boys are just the tools of shady businessmen who essentially pimp them out to sell cheap candy and give them a meager cut of the day's earnings. One story I heard involved one of the boy saying something along the lines of: "Please just buy this last pack of gum so I can go home."

Because my Arabic is shamefully nonexistent, and since the average English skills of these Palestinian boy-hustlers is understandably nonexistent, I could not really investigate the validity of these claims through the boys themselves. All I could do was issue the quasi-bribe* of offering to buy their candy on the condition that they let me take a photo of them holding their merchandise.

This young man was a regular fixture of the bus/service station. While the #18 bus to Jerusalem idled, waiting to fill up, he would often make an appearance in the aisle, brandishing a bushel of candy bags filled with assorted gummy treats. One time I thought I had rid myself of him, only to be scared the shit out of when he knocked on my window and pantomimed his sales pitch from the outside.

When Naomi Klein wrote about "disaster capitalism," she declined to mention that the class of disaster capitalists extends far beyond the realm of rich, white Fortune 500 bigwigs. Here are two younglings (including the only girl I've ever seen on the hustle) selling bubblegum in the heart of an Israeli checkpoint. The Qalandia checkpoint bristles with opportunistic salesmen—for example, I've seen young men walk up to the windows of waiting cars, trying to sell pillows.

Other common items for sale include these little stickers containing various Qur'anic verses. One day I'll be able to actually read what they say.

These two runts were the only ones to get over two shekels each from me, and perhaps unsurprsingly, were the only ones to run off without even giving me the product I had bought. But then again, it's quite possible that they thought I was just paying for their picture.

This kind boy was one of scores of Ramallahans selling 25 cent popsicles out of Styrofoam coolers that all look eerily the same, down to the worn corners and the half-torn-off stickers.

This was the popsicle boy's friend who is looking less enthused because I held firm and didn't buy anything from him. I pointed to my mouth occupied with popsicle chunks as proof that I had no room for gum. It's bullshit, of course, but I feared setting an overly charitable example that would have all the boy salesmen in the parking garage coming my way.

Still, he let me photograph his merchandise: TAIJIXING (JIN LONG JIAN) chewing gum, probably made at the cost of a hundredth of a cent per pack. How intriguing it would be to trace this box from China to Palestine.

*Prefix "quasi-" added to make myself feel better about what are undoubtedly out-and-out bribes of children.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus...

Before I came here, to Palestine, I made a Skype call to my friend in Nablus and asked her if there was anything specific I needed to wear. Also, would it be a no-no to bring a skateboard?

"Don't worry about it. You're a guy—you can do whatever you want," she replied.

Once actually in Nablus hanging with said female friend, I suggest going the Turkish bathhouse that I had heard so much about. But alas, I forget—women are only allowed one day a week at the bathhouse, and today isn't her day. I'm wearing a T-shirt, my arms are thankfully bare under the Middle Eastern sun, but hers are covered past the elbow; she doesn't want to be stared at, or worse, talked about.

If I were to try and pinpoint the biggest difference between American and Palestinian culture, I would settle upon how vastly different the lives of men and women are here. Everything from schools to weddings to swimming pools are likely to be sexually segregated here (though not nearly as severely and strictly as in places like Saudi Arabia). Men hang out with other men, and women hang out with other women—for the most part.

Internationals like myself are not immune from these cultural pressures. For example, my activities yesterday consisted of teaching an all-boys class at the Al Am'ari refugee camp, then hanging out with two other men at an apartment where female visitors were not permitted (a rule which just might have had something to do with my own eviction), then paying a visit to the legendary Baldna coffee shop, where the air is filled with a heavy combination of fragrant smoke and testosterone. There is no sign that reads NO WOMEN ALLOWED, but no such sign is needed—women do not come here. The unwritten rules are clear: this is a place for men to play cards, drink tea, and puff on argeela late into the night.

I am not, however, going to jump on the "look how oppressed these women are by their religion/culture" boat just yet. It is tempting to come to this conclusion when, for instance, you visit the swimming pool at Bir Zeit and see that the men's pool is spacious and equipped with slides while the women's pool is tucked out of sight—it's a small, slideless, tarp-covered thing.

You ask: is it hard to be a woman in Palestine? International women will almost invariably say yes, but Palestinian women are more likely to say no—at least this is my impression from scattered conversations. They say they choose to wear the hijab, they choose to cover their bodies, and even if their swimming pool is smaller, they enjoy having their own space where they are not going to be stared at by men.

But one could easily argue that the reason that men are likely to stare at them is because they have almost never been allowed to see women's bodies due to the culture they live in. Just like the denial of alcohol to teenagers in America creates immature alcoholics, so does the denial of women to unmarried men create scores of sexually repressed guys who may just masturbate at women from behind trees, or may just wait on the bottom floor of an apartment building at night, flashing his penis at any international girls that walk by. (True stories; since unmarried Palestinian women are definitely out of the question—remember, people talk and everybody knows each other—international women bear the brunt of trashy sexual advances by Palestinian men.)

It could also be argued that these women regard their sexual repression as "choices" for the preservation of their own pride, when really, forces larger than the individual make any other choice dangerous or outright impossible—like a gun to your head at the voting booth. It's a frightening proposition for a woman to abandon the safety and familial respect that comes with keeping to tradition, and so for the sake of her own mental health, she gradually begins to regard these customs as her own choices, lest she feel like a prisoner for her entire life.

Of course, the whole thing is so nuanced and complicated that what I just presented is undoubtedly a false dichotomy of the issue. Since I've been here for only two months, and since I am a man unexposed to the vast unknown of the lives of Palestinian women, I'll reserve further judgment.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Martyrs of Nablus

Below are some pictures of some common signage on the streets of Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank and one of the most interesting places on earth. During the Second Intifada many Palestinian fighters—some of whom would become "martyrs"—came from this very city. (I refuse to call them "terrorists" unless they had attacked civilians.) Those who died in combat are featured on posters which almost invariably include two components—a picture of the Dome of the Rock (the second holiest site in Islam) and some sort of heavy weaponry in the deceased's hands. It's pretty dark stuff, but to be honest, I'd rather look at this stuff than advertising any day.

I personally think that armed struggle against the Israelis by the Palestinians is pointless and self-destructive—the Israelis have much bigger, better-functioning weaponry than the Palestinians, and more of it. Not to mention that life only got more difficult for Palestinians after the Second Intifada—they now have more trouble moving from place to place and finding jobs than they ever did before.

Not to say that I do not understand why Palestinians would take up arms against the Israelis. As I said before, it’s difficult to contemplate forgiveness and non-violent struggle after your family and/or friends are killed by a “smart bomb.” Still, understanding does not equal endorsement, especially in this case. Given the malleable nature of the young mind, I find it tragic that in both Palestine and Israel, kids are growing up in societies that glorify warfare.

You'll notice that the gentleman above is rather popular, being featured in four of the five shots I’ve provided. This guy is known as "Spider Man," and he is without question one of the most famous martyrs in Nablus. Rumors are that Spidey's family is rich; hence the large number of expertly-crafted posters of him all over town. The story surrounding his death is that he was providing cover fire for one of his mates when an Israeli jet dropped a bomb on him. Perhaps it was the fact that he was felled not by a $2 bullet, but by a $20,000 bomb, that has gained him such posthumous admiration.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Glorious, Glorious Golan

A couple weekends ago I somehow ended up with the good fortune of being paired up with two beautiful ladies to go research one of the most beautiful areas in the world—the Golan Heights, north of Israel proper. Since my case study on the Jordan Valley petered out for various reasons, ICAHD assigned me to help out with this one.

The Golan is the unsung occupied territory, garnering much less international attention than the Palestinian territories. The occupied Golan Heights was once Syrian land—indeed, virtually all the Arabs in the Golan still regard it as Syria—that was annexed by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. The only thing marring the unbelievable beauty of this land of cherry and apple orchards are the untold amount of landmines lying beneath vast swaths of the territory. You'll become very familiar with the murky yellow DANGER! MINES! sign after only a few minutes in the Golan.

Most of the Arabs in the Israeli-occupied Golan are of Druze heritage, which I'll leave you to research because I don't feel like making the effort to describe it all here. Let's just say that like Jewish identity, Druze identity is a mix of ethnicity, religion, and social tradition.

While I was there, we did a considerable amount of solid work, but we also had a lot of fun. Our crew-of-three saw a local hip-hop show with seizure-inducing lighting, muscled a rented car over rocky roads between the ruins of houses, skinny dipped in the Sea of Galilee on a moonless night, barbecued kebabs of "young sheep" while sitting in an apple orchard, enjoyed succulent just-picked cherries from a local farmer, had millions of interesting conversations over millions of cups of aromatic Turkish coffee, posed atop the carcass of both an Israeli and a Syrian tank, and of course sang along to sentimental American childhood favorites ranging from Alanis Morissette to the Backstreet Boys. I could say more, but I'm getting to that point where I know that writing about life is cool insofar that it does not consume so much of your time that it makes your life less fulfilling – and consequently, less worthy of being written about!

Since the theme of this post seems to be laziness, I thought it'd be fitting to share my political and journalistic findings in the Golan by copying a lengthy email that I just sent my superior at ICAHD. Why write the same thing twice?


...As far as getting testimonials from people pushed out of their homes by the Israelis in '67 (which is the Syrian narrative echoed by everybody we talked to), we didn't get any - because we learned that virtually all of these refugees are in Syria at the moment. A--- probably told you that she is planning on talking to these refugees once she gets settled in Syria. We did talk to a few older men who were there in Majdal Shams when the Israelis invaded, but none of them were actually displaced, and Majdal Shams didn't see much action because most of the fighting was happening in the plateaus to the south.

We were reminded over and over again that the population of the Golan, which was something like 130,000 before the war, had plummeted to only 5,000 after the Israeli army had emptied almost all of the towns except for the five Druze villages in the north, of which Majdal Shams is one. There were a few reasons that were offered for Israel's decision to let these Druze villages be, the main ones being that a) Seeing as the town had already been razed to the ground twice by the French and Ottomans, the population decided they would rather live under occupation than flee and risk their village being destroyed a third time. b) Israel's desire to cultivate a special relationship with the Druze for their own political ends.

I'm sure you're somewhat familiar with this, as well as the parallels of oppression in both Jewish and Druze history. Taiseer Merei from Golan for Development told us that originally Israel had wanted to create a Druze state which would encompass parts of the Golan and what is now the north of Israel proper. This would be done, according to Dr. Marai, to legitimize Israel's ethnocracy by creating a similiar state, which would imply that this is the norm in the new Middle East. Dr. Marai also mentioned that Zionist planners had long coveted the Golan - even before '67 - for its considerable water resources.

In my opinion, the most interesting things we learned on the trip were not about 1967, but 2009. That is, the Occupation here in the Golan is of a softer, more accommodating form than in Palestine (only as far as the Golanis do not resist, surely the Israeli boot is still on the neck, but with much lighter pressure). A think a good analogy between occupied Palestine and the Golan is that of the difference between the fictional dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World. In Palestine/1984, the people are controlled through brute force, while in the Golan/Brave New World, people are lulled into loving their masters and are rarely punished because their opposition never materializes. The Syrian Druze may not be as loyal to Israel as the Palestinian Druze living in Israel proper, but they still enjoy health benefits and access to higher education in Israel. Most of the street signs here are in Hebrew and Arabic. One young Syrian - who was going to college in Haifa - told us that there were more doctors per capita in Majdal Shams than anywhere else in the world (unverifiable fact, but interesting nonetheless). As we talked with more and more younger people there, we got the feeling that many of the new generation of Syrian Druze would rather be occupied by Israel than be back under Syrian rule. If the Golan were returned to Syria, they could face fewer economic opportunities and poorer healthcare, among other things.

Besides the religious and cultural parallels between the Jewish and Druze people, we were also told that the Israelis give the Druze greater opportunities because they can afford to. This is because the Syrian Arabpopulation of the Golan - which is predominantly Druze - is only 21,000 people (there are an estimated 18,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan as well). Finally, just as the Palestinians are worse off after the second Intifada, the Syrian Druze are better off because nothing of the sort ever occurred. The last major act of resistance by the people of the Golan was over a quarter-century ago - in 1982, there was a general strike for six months. But ever since then, things seem to have been pretty quiet. Still, in the rare instance that poltiical opposition appears in the Golan, it is swiftly and quietly crushed. Many of the older men we spoke to had put considerable time in Israeli jails.

Despite their "good behavior" and relatively small numbers, the Syrian Arabs in the occupied Golan are undoubtedly treated like second class citizens. The Israeli land authority, Minhal, has allowed virtually no space for the villages to grow outwards - the designated outer boundary of the village was drawn almost exactly along the lines of existing housing. So instead, the people of Majdal Shams have to build in between and on top of each other. Nazeh Brik, the architect we spoke with, said that this crowding was having a negative psychological effect on the population - it was making people more "tense" and "aggressive" - although I will say that the people we met were invariably awesome.

The Syrian Arabs also pay a higher premium for water than their Jewish neighbors, and at one point, the Makarot - the Israeli water authority in the Golan - wanted to tax rainwater collected by farmers, since they considered it property of the State of Israel. Ridiculous, isn't it? From what we were told, Syrian Arabs have to pay nearly four times as much for their water than the Jewish settlers there. If only I could get my hands on something more official to verify this...

The greatest flaw of all of our research was that our interview subjects were not really a good representation of the whole population. The atheist Druze community, which by any reasonable guess is no more than 10% of the population of Majdal Shams, made up probably 75% of our interviews. You know how it works - the first person we meet there is an atheist, who refers us to another like-minded person, who refers us to another like-minded person, etc. We didn't get to talk to any obviously religious Druze - you know, the ones wearing the white snow-caps and donning the curly mustaches - which is unfortunate.

We did, however, spend an evening in a Jewish settlement and spoke with a professor and published author who said quite interestingly that the whole dispute between Syria and Israel over the Golan really boils down to a strip of land alongside Tiberias Lake/Sea of Galilee. Because the lake has actually changed shape since 1967, Israel would somehow still control its entire shoreline if exact borders (based on global coordinates?) were reinforced, according to this professor whose name escapes me now - A--- definitely knows.

Overall, I would echo a common sentiment that the occupation of the Golan Heights is more economical than ideological. The place is incredibly, incredibly interesting and utterly gorgeous and I could easily write you an email about the Golan that makes this one look like a Post-It note, so I'll stop here.
And now for some epic pictures from our epic journey:

From this vantage point near the dormant ski resort, you can see the lands of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Trudging amongst the ruins of one of the hundreds of Syrian villages razed in a two month period following Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights.

Our homeboy Omar poses on the hood of a Syrian tank featured in a memorial park for Israeli soldiers killed in the wars of '67 and '73; this place is called the "Valley of Tears." Not far away from the tank are speakers with button-activated recordings which regale the listener of Israeli heroics during the 1973 war, replete with majestic background music.

Meanwhile, no more than a hundred meters in the distance an abandoned Israeli tank looks sullen and confused as to why the Syrian tank gets to be placed at the Israeli memorial.

Majdal Shams: undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the Golan's Druze villages and perhaps the coolest place in the Middle East. Have you ever eaten a crepe with labaneh inside? You haven't lived until you've tried it!

Just one of the many riveting landscapes you'll encounter along the Golan's roads, which may be the closest you can get to the white-knuckled fantasies embodied in car commercials. That is, you get curvy, mountainside roads with a lushly romantic environmental backdrop and little to no police presence.

A bullet-riddled, deserted mosque just outside the ruins of the aforementioned town.

The inside of the mosque was covered in graffiti of all political stripes, with plenty of bizarre apolitical stuff to boot.

Thanks to the two aforementioned beautiful women for these pictures, and for some interesting shots of our Syrian friend Nihad's mine-riddled backyard, visit his Flickr page.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Playing Teacher in Al-Am'ari

As I mentioned before, my lower output as of late can be attributed partly to my decision to spend two weeks teaching English to boys living in the Al-Am'ari refugee camp in southeast Ramallah. I'm nearing the end of week one, so I'll give you my impressions and nuggets of insight that I've gained thus far.

A refugee camp in Palestine is the equivalent of what is called the "ghetto" in American cities. The camps are often regarded as the "bad" areas of town by the more affluent, middle-class Palestinians. Case in point: when my ex-roommate was stuck at an impromptu Israeli road blockade, he called me and asked me to teach his English class—which was to start in 20 minutes. Since I was obviously unprepared for the day's lesson, I mostly improvised with the Palestinian teens in the class. One of my time-killers was to ask them for directions—in English!—to the Al Am'ari camp, as I was to start teaching there soon. Many of the kids shook their heads and told me I did not want to go there. "They are bad people, not like us, not like people from Ramallah," one of the boys said.

Class identity often supersedes religious, ethnic, and even family identity. One only has to listen to the middle-class white man, insistent about his racial tolerance, talking about the difference between "good" and "bad" black people. When you dig a little deeper, invariably the "good" ones are the ones have clawed into the ranks of the middle class, the ones who learned to pay their mortgage and shun welfare checks like responsible adults.

The refugee camps, with their politically-tinged squalor, are the perfect breeding ground for ideas of violent struggle against Israel and "martyrdom.” Of course there is a huge amount of resentment towards Israel from all Palestinians, but it is especially pronounced among those living in the camps, quixotically hoping to return to the homes that the Israelis kicked them out of in the momentous wars of 1948 and 1967. Another more detailed, probing post on this matter is forthcoming, so I'll leave it at that for now. I mention this because some of the favorite activities of these little ones (fourth and fifth graders) is to construct surprisingly sophisticated pistols out of notebook paper, contorting rubber bands into the shape of the Palestinian flag, or to doodle renditions of the ubiquitous “Hanthala.”

This is the only job I've ever had in which my lack of a skill has been integral to my hiring. My bosses liked that I couldn't speak any Arabic. With no Arabic skills, I could give the children the total “immersion” which is often cited as the key to really learning a language. Meanwhile, my co-instructor (technically, she's a volunteer) is an amazing 17 year-old Palestinian girl who speaks five languages, including Urdu and Russian. She also keeps the class in line—I'm a terrible disciplinarian.

Yet I'm getting paid, and she's not!

One of the best things about this job is the location: the commute is on a slight downhill that remains virtually constant from the Minarah at the center of the city. So I hop on my skateboard and coast and weave through traffic—which is a pretty huge rush, even at 7:15am—then break off to a lesser road and ride the rest of the way to the camp. I'm guessing the skateboard gives me an extra twenty minutes of sleep in the morning, which is crucial considering my average bedtime as of late hovers somewhere around 1:30am. When the school day is over I usually hitch a ride with my co-workers back to the city center.

I don't think I'm fit to teach kids this young. I lack that goofball affability and giant heart that works so well with these kids. And to be honest, I don't get excited about teaching basic concepts – “What is this?” [pointing to a crude illustration of an apple]—which is all these kids really understand at this point. Their English vocabulary probably consists of over a hundred words, but they are generally incapable of forming sentences with them. Whenever I work with kids, I deal with this giant, crippling guilt complex that bludgeons me mercilessly for not being the teacher that these kids deserve. Teaching truly is one of the most difficult jobs on earth and I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of them are not paid nearly enough.

Despite my perceived inferiority, I definitely scored some massive cool points with the kids due to my skateboard and my donation of the beloved basketball that I had become so familiar with over the last month. I yielded to the swarm of hands when I got out the skateboard, and the kids played with it for a couple days until one of the little ones skinned his wrist absolutely raw and I knew that it should stay in the teacher's room. The basketball games have been ridiculous free-for-alls in which the "big kids" consisting of me and a few male volunteers beat back a horde of twenty or more boys all screaming the name of whoever has the ball. Fitting to the location, only one of the hoops on the court is functional and has no trace of a net.

The kids—like pretty much all Palestinian youth—have an unquenchable curious thirst for the details of my life and barrage me with questions about everything from my marital status to if I like wrestling to if I love Palestine. I can tell that they want to teach me Arabic, seeing as they continue to speak it to me knowing full well that I cannot speak it. Just today a group of them was trying to get me to recite a Muslim prayer which, if completed, essentially amounts to a conversion to Islam.

Speaking of Islam, I'd guess that about 60% of the kids in class have a name that is—or is derived from—that of the prophet Mohammed. I have four Mohammeds, four Ahmeds, one Ahmad, one Hammed, one Mahmoud, one Allah, etc. etc. If I've forgotten their name, I'll just spit out "Mohammed" and usually the child in question turns his eyes in my direction. Could you imagine if similar naming customs revolving around Jesus existed in America?

Last but definitely not least, the classes are separated by sex: there are three girls classes and two boys classes. This is a necessary concession to the conservative social culture predominant in the poorer areas of Palestine.

Tomorrow is our field trip to the swimming pool in Bir Zeit. I wonder if the boys and girls will be separated there too. To be honest, I'm secretly hoping for that: not to toot my own horn, but I'm not in the mood to deal with the adoring shrieks of dozens of middle school girls.