[2008] Figs

[2008] Figs

[2008] Map of the West Bank

[2008] Map of the West Bank


"Let me sort out your confusion"

So, yes, I know, it's difficult to read this. Because posts appear in no apparent order. Yes, yes, got it. Deal. Sorry, I must just be jetlagged and crabby. I'm kidding.

I wrote posts either a few days after an experience or a week later (after another, more recent experience had been documented) from notes in my journal. I write in most of the posts a date in italics for when the experiences or observations took place. If you really want to read in chronological order, search for the order of the dates. Then again, it may not make a big difference. Probably just a bit strange to come to the flight home in the middle of the stories. Also, the most recently written is listed first. I debated changing this but then you'd have posts from last summer (2007) first, and that just won't do.

Therefore, I offer you, reader, my deepest apologies and then I offer, "If you are not intelligent to sort through this anti-chronological blog, then perhaps you should quit this and pick up the New York Post!" Again, I kid. I think.

Lastly, I only hope I've accurately described and with at least the bare minimum of descriptiveness given you a picture of the world of the West Bank. All I've hoped to do is open a window into a place of deep sorrow but also happiness. Because "The West Bank", or "The Palestinian Territories", or "The Occupied Territories" or "Palestine" (the land whose very name evokes strong feelings, some of intense loyalty, some of deep anger), is depicted so one dimensionally, and because every part of my experience there disputed this, I feel it my need to share with others. Thank you for reading and feel free to contact me at heidirosbe@gmail.com if you think I've misrepresented anything or left out anything of great importance. I offer only my experience and a bit of my viewpoint, but I do not claim to write the truth or give light to the full history of political spectrum.



House of Witches

I found out that "Beit Sahour" means "House of Witches"... or maybe "House of Witch". I don't know what is the singular and what is the plural of "witch" in Arabic. Joe (as Dante dubbed Joseph) told me that in ancient times (when Beit Jala was a flourishing city, before even Bethlehem) no one wanted to come to the Beit Sahour area because it was rumored to be the place of sorcery. I'm not sure about witches, but Beit Sahour certainly is full of ghosts. These ghosts haunt the run-down streets and the shepherd's fields at night. These ghosts can be seen only in the eyes of those Beit Sahour residents who, usually so careful not to let them out, sometimes slip up and let me see the ghosts. Sometimes the ghosts actually come alive, out of the mouths of Sahouris who let free a somber song of the past. I saw one such ghost last summer when I finally heard a bit of the fear and uncertainty that had swept the area in 2001 during the siege of the Church of the Nativity. And I've caught glimmers of the ghosts when a friends mentions the army camp that was vacated only years ago, now made into a family park, but rumored to be re-converted to again house Israeli soldiers in the coming year. It's hard to miss the ghosts, but still more difficult to identify them. Sometimes these ghosts come and go so quickly amidst an atmosphere filled with hummus, falafel, Taybeh, kissses, ahlah wa sahlans, and open doors. But make no mistake, these ghosts are as alive as any ghost can be in this house of witches.


George's Story

Wednesday, August 19, 2008

In 2000 (or thereabouts), when Hezbollah was bombing the northern part of Israel near the Sea of Galilee, George and his girlfriend at the time decided to take a trip to visit the Sea. They didn't have a permit, however, and were forced to turn back towards Bethlehem. On the way, they passed a group of Israeli soldiers hitchhiking and decided to pick them up. George and his girlfriend posed as Americans, speaking only English to the soldiers. After a pleasant drive they dropped of the soldiers where they'd requested. As the soldier thanked them and walked off, George called out "Masalaama!" and drove off, leaving the soldiers to ponder the fact that they'd just accepted a ride from "the enemy" Palestinians.

("Masalaama" means "good-bye" in Arabic)


View from the youth...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

One of our Beit Jala youth opened himself up on video in a way I hadn’t expected—both because I hadn’t thought he was as interested in sharing personal experiences and because I hadn’t know that these experiences were prevalent in the seemingly more calm and middle-class town of Beit Jala. He told us on the camera that Israeli soldiers used to come to his house in the middle of the night and make everyone vacate the house, sometimes half-naked. He said they would rummage through household items and break things, finally leaving giving the explanation that they “hadn’t found anything”. Seeing the fear on this otherwise self-confident and happy young person was a bit heart-breaking. I can only imagine the impression 2am raids with gun-toting and screaming soldiers must have had.

A few days earlier, Nora had accompanied a few of the young men who wanted to film a fallen down house which looks more like a castle. They showed here the one hundred-odd bullet holds and where whole sections of the walls had been destroyed during the Second Intifada, probably in 2001. The youth now go there to write graffiti and hang out.

What would my childhood have been like if, instead of selling homemade cookies at the park, I'd been playing in bullet-ridden bombed out houses? Where would I be now?

Balata Refugee Camp (Mokhayim Balata)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Balata Refugee Camp, near Nablus

The camp is one square kilometer in size and is rented out to the UNRWA for one hundred years to house a refugee camp. Residents come mostly from Yafa (near Tel Aviv). They own only their homes, not the land and thus are unable to expand as their families grow. Aside from a few main streets, most streets are no more than a meter wide and the pavement is breaking apart in most areas. Children play in the streets, as there are no parks or green areas in the camp. There are no large open indoors spaces either, because of the lack of space.

We were lucky enough to visit this camp, because my friend Arwa knew a family there, so four of us made the trek. Coming from Bethlehem, we bussed it into Jerusalem on the 21, to catch the 18 to Ramallah, where we then grabbed a service (shared van-taxi) to Hawara Checkpoint--inside the West Bank, not on the "border" (the checkpoint is outside of Nablus, and Balata) where very few vehicles are allowed through. I believe only ambulances have clearance. The checkpoints have changes since last year and now people are only "checked" one-way, meaning on the wait in to Balata we just walked across, while on the return trip we would have to wait in the long line and pass through the security station manned by the usual young Israeli soldiers with their M-16s. Passing across this checkpoint, we met Arwa's friend, Ali, and hailed a taxi to take us to the refugee camp.

I feel that my faith in youth centers was renewed greatly by a visit to the Yafa Youth Center (www.yafacult.org) located at one edge of the camp, near the UNRWA headquarters building. Speaking with the director, Mahmoud, we learned about original videos produced by the youth, including two that had won in the Boston and Chicago film festivals, "Noor's Dream" and "Memory of the Nakba". Mahmoud told us about the music programs and the two young brothers who had been saving their pennies (well, their shekels) to buy a relatively expensive toy gun. After a few months in the program learning violin, they told him they had changed their mind and were now saving money for a violin. A visiting couple from Iceland overheard, and offered to buy the boys a violin. Mahmoud said with a chuckle, "Their parents now beg me to take back the violin, because they can't sleep with the constant squeeking of the beginner violinists". I think my sister can sympathize.

Mahmoud told us about the trip they'd been able to organize (after months of jumping through hoops and an enormous amount of support from international NGOs) to take 20 youth to Spain for a week. The young people performed traditional dance and plays at various venues in Spain and visited cities and sites. For most, it was the first time they'd left the camp's area. At the briefing before the trip when the kids met with the Spanish group hosting them, one ten year old boy raised his hand and asked if he could ask a question. They nodded, "Of course!" He asked "Is Spain before the checkpoint or after?" He'd never been beyond the checkpoint I'd passed through just hours before.

Mahmoud stressed how important trips like these were for the youth of Balata. For the youngest children, simply having a happy and fun experience helped motivate them in school. Before leaving for Spain, the older youth had spent hours at the donated computers, searching on google earth to learn all about Spain. The chance to visit Europe had opened their eyes to the world beyond their reality. The possibly it participating in future trips motivated many of their friends to study hard as only the top students are chosen to go.

As Mahmoud was finishing the story, a little girl walked in, about ten years old and cute enough for all of us to let go audible sighs of "aww, how cute!" Arwa asked "Did you go on the trip to Spain?" Mahmoud's eyes became sad. He told us how she had been with the group, and everyone had gotten past the Hawara Checkpoint, however when the reached the next checkpoint, into Israel, the security officers had determined that because the girls' mother was originally from Gaza, she could not be allowed to cross. She was the only one turned back. "It broke our hearts" he said.

Rami, who looked to be around 23 years old, and who had been working editing some video projects the whole time we'd been speaking with Mahmoud spoke up. He told us how he'd been responsible for holding all of the youth's passports on the trip, so none of them got lost. After their first day in Spain, the youth had approached him and demanded their passports. "We want to throw them into the sea, so we never have to go back", they told him. "Please call our families and tell them sorry, but we want to stay here." Rami then laughed and said, "By the end of the trip though they were all homesick and missed their parents and brothers and sisters".

It's so uplifting to know that there are people out there who work to provide opportunities for these young people growing up in a world in which there is very little hope.


Airport "Security"

Friday, August 22, 2008, writing from Ben Gurion Airport

3:50am: I wake up. I feel a bit like I've been beat over the head with a mallet, but then I look at Nora and realize she clearly feels worse than I do. This trip has been a whirlwind of getting the most out of everyday and I'm exhausted. Not to mention having not gotten a solid night of sleep since I've been here.

4:21am: We leave S----'s house (He is the kind cousin of a friend who has generously put us up for the day and night in Tel Aviv and regaled us with stories the night before of the protest at Nilin, near Bilin in the West Bank, where he goes each week to take an Israeli stand against the occupation and the building of the Wall.)

4:29am: We are pleased with ourselves for quickly locating a taxi to the train station (where a train will take us to the airport) for only 25 skekels without even having to bargain

4:34am: The taxi driver drops us off. We are surprised that the train station is so close and wonder why we paid the equivalent of $8.

4:35am: We realize we've been dropped at the bus station, which is closed. We are told it will cost us another 30 shekels to take another taxi to the actual train station and we realize we will probably be too late to catch the 4:39am train. A new taxi driver tells us he can drive us to the airport for 140 shekels. We pool our 103 shekels and beg. We win.

4:50am: We arrive at the airport and go our separate ways, as I'm flying Air France and Nora is on Continental. Waiting in the line to get to the first bag x-ray machine, I'm asked what I was doing here [teaching dance], have I been to Israel before [yes], did I teach dance last year [yes], do I have any friends in Israel [yes, I stayed with a friend last night in Tel Aviv], what is his name [S----- P-----], do I have have any family in Israel [no], do I speak any Hebrew [no]. I'm good to go.

5:05am: My bags begins the process of being put through the first of their x-ray experiences today.

5:09am: I am instructed to enter a new line to the area where bags are checked more thoroughly. Last year I was sent directly here since the first question I’d gotten at stage one was “Where have you visited on this trip?”, the answer including towns in the West Bank which led to some chaos and my immediate sentencing to the line I was in now. I wonder if I should have offered that information this time even though I wasn’t asked; if it would have expedited this process since I’ve ended up here anyway, after the earlier line. This line today seems to move at a snail pace and I look ahead to where bags are opened, contents spread out across the long inspection tables, a new meaning to airing one’s dirty laundry. Jokes had been made over the past few days of leaving a fudge-cicle in ones drawers, armed with the explanation “I figured best to do all the washing when I get home!”

5:34am: I finally reach the head of the line. I am called over by a female inspection officer. Damn. I was hoping for a male, since observation has led to the conclusion that the women seem to be harsher and more strict in their searches, both at checkpoint and all security. Mine seems nice enough however, despite her obvious annoyance that my hiking pack has so many zippers and pouches.

To my right, a Japanese family of husband, wife, and son who looks to be around 19 years old are having a taste of my experience last year. A search of the son’s baggage has yielded an Arabic-English dictionary (in fact, the same one on my bookshelf at home) and a security officer who seems to be “head-honcho” is practically yelling. She demands answers: Why do you study Arabic? Why not Hebrew? Why would you want to speak Arabic? The young man speaks almost no English (and certainly no Hebrew) so his father steps in with something about him being a student and he himself being a professor. The security agent's tone suggests more that she is offended by the very fact that this kid would want to study Arabic, than that she is following routine protocol. I can't possibly imagine this scrawny Japanese kid to be much a thread of any sort to Israeli security, other than perhaps holding up some lines while officers try to communicate to him unsuccessfully. I suppose I should rejoice that this time it's not typical racial profiling--not the Arab or Muslim getting held apart, however it's profoundly disturbing to watch so much animosity rise up within this woman at the mere prospect of someone wanting to study Arabic.

I turn back to my bags as my inspector urges me to empty out its contents, but I’m reminded of the similar conversation I had last year at this airport where I was forced to explain why I was studying Arabic, as if it were a crime and why I would want to study Arabic in the West Bank as if that too were a crime. Earlier this morning, just before Nora and I parted ways, we’d wished each other “good luck” on the security check. She then thought for a moment and asked “Well, there isn’t anything we’re not being truthful about, is there?” We’d briefly entertained the thought of saying we’d spend the night in Tel Aviv at a hostel if our host had preferred not to be named, but he didn’t mind so now of course we were simply planning to answer truthfully to all questions asked. I suddenly realize anew how strange it feels to be afraid of telling the truth. Is there anything I’ve done wrong?, I ask myself.

I’ve taught dance to youth who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn this dance. I’ve provided them the tools to express their thoughts through video.
I’ve visited a part of the world that is currently in turmoil.
I’ve been interested in a people, a culture, a language; all different from my own.
I’ve broken bread with old and new friends.
I’ve photographed and written about my experiences, both in factual form and evaluating my thoughts.

I can’t seem to see what is wrong with anything I’ve done. Perhaps I’m missing something?

I feel glad I sent the mini-DV tapes by post, mostly because it’s one less thing I have to explain (especially since I have no video cameras on me, as they were donated to be left at Aida Refugee Camp’s Rowwad youth program).

5:52am: I am packing my bag for the second time today, returning its contents to their places, unmentionables and all.

5:54am: I enter now the ticket check-in line, the part where this process usually begins in all other airports I’ve been to.

6:01am: I am through but am now instructed to walk to an elevator where my checked luggage is to be dropped because it has “too many straps”. I place my luggage in the elevator, thinking “insha’allah it makes it to the plane!”

6:10am: I’m in line for the carry-on security check. This line is populated by irritated people, and still more irritated personnel. Again, we move at a snail’s pace. I notice that none of the staff here seem any older than me. Do they all retire at 30?, I wonder. I watch as a Muslim mother and father watch nervously as their son passes through this section of security, this point clearly being the last at which friends and family may accompany the passengers-to-be. I wonder how many times they’ve been questioned for hours upon trying to leave via air.
Last week, I’d asked my Palestinian-American friend’s 15 year old nephew about his experience entering through this airport. After his family had been left to wait in a tiny interrogation room, security came to retrieve the parents for further questioning. After inspecting their tickets, they’d overheard the officers on walkie-talkies giving the seat numbers and instructing someone on the other end to inspect those seats for possibly weapons or bombs left there. He told me that when he turns 16, he’ll be eligible for a personal questioning, apart from his parents.

6:49am: My carry-on bags finally go through the x-ray machine (again). There seems to be a problem and I have to empty out all electronic devices from my bag and send it through again. I pass the test.

6:58am: I pass through the doors, thinking I’m finally free only to find myself in yet another line. This one looks strikingly similar to that in which I waiting on my entry into the country—this is the passport check line. I enter a “foreign passports” line and wonder, Is this where they’ll finally get me and send me to an interrogation room? Will I finally be asked for a day-by-day play of my activities? I’m sure they won’t be ecstatic about my visits to Jenin and Balata. I’m fairly certain that the desire to visit those places is a bit of a crime here.

7:10am: After what feels like just an extension of the continuous line I’ve been waiting in all morning, I am passed through, just like my entry two weeks earlier, with no words uttered.

7:58am: The final straw is when for a moment, upon boarding, I’m held back because of a problem with my boarding pass. I think, Aha! This is where they’ve caught me, on my indiscretions of travel to no-no-land! However, I’m passed through.

I marvel at the fact that arriving almost three and a half hours early gave me just enough time to make my flight. And this is without any further inspection. As far as Ben Gurion Security knew, I hadn’t even ventured outside of “Israel”. I think, if I were Israeli I doubt I’d ever fly anywhere simply due to this hassle of leaving this country. And if I were Arab-Israeli I’d be even less inclined to do so. I wonder if Nora’s faired the same or been tripped up by the sticky questions of “Where did you visit?” (and consequently “Why would you want to visit there??”) If so, I wonder if she’ll make it on time for her 11:00am flight.


Call to prayer in Al Quds

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

This morning we awoke (a bit moist from the dew) on the roof of a Citadel Hostel in Old Jerusalem in the Christian Quarter to the 4am call to prayer emanating from Al Aqsa mosque (and then echoed by the approximately twenty other nearby mosques). I groggily opened my eyes and looked out over the Old City and saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock in the distance. Eerily beautiful. Less fun that I was huddled in a soggy blanket with no pillow and a strange man huddled sleeping beside me (though he was from Switzerland so we figured he was ok...)

The Old City of Jerusalem (Al Quds Al-Kadeem) is enchanting at night. That sounds overly poetic but it's not to describe it as so. As we meandered through the streets, passing through the Christian Quarter into the Jewish Quarter, I saw crowds flooding out from one direction. We pushed through and suddenly came upon the Dome of the Rock, the Western (Wailing) Wall and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Placing a prayer in the Western Wall (gotta follow suit to Obama) is no small feat. Though Nora and I were not made to wear a paper kippa as Dante was. Looking around, we realized that most of the women were backing away from the wall all the way back to the entrance, so we did so as well, nearly knocking over more than a few small children in the process. Somehow, it's such a powerful experience to see so many people believing all at once. It sort of carries you away to wonder if you could believe as well.

Continuing on into the Muslim Quarter (in which I instantly felt almost at home because it felt like Beit Sahour) we arrived at Damascus Gate, just as the evening call to prayer was beginning. I was struck by how far removed I felt leaving the Old City, feeling 100% the tourist, looking across to the bus station I'd transfered to so many times enroute to Ramallah... or Nablus... I felt like I was looking through a window into a past life, although I'd just left the West Bank that morning.

After dinner and walking back through the Armenian Quarter to our hostel, it felt like the correct way to end the journey. Perhaps standing already on the other side of the glass is preparation for when instead of imagined glass, an ocean, a few large bodies of land, and a culture gap separate me from this life.

In Tel Aviv now, I feel like my life in the West Bank is worlds away and ages ago. Today the objective? Not human rights observation. Not empowerment of youth. Not expansion of world experience. Simply to sit on the beach, grab a bit of a tan before heading home and gear up for the year ahead.


The Project

When I came to Palestine last summer it was for so many reasons, only one of which was to volunteer. Coming back a second time, I couldn't really imagine not giving something of my time to the place that had welcomed me with such open arms. This is a place where the hospitality is so much that at time it's overwhelming for a New Yorker like me (despite my midwestern roots) to take in. I sometimes look longingly back to the days of people ignoring each other on the R train in the morning. I'm mostly kidding.

I had promised the youth from last year's breaking (breakdancing) program that I would send them cd's with breaking songs which I had been delinquent on, and had told them I would try to come again the next summer, bringing other bboys/bgirls... "Insha'allah I will come again" I'd said. So I brought the next best thing: a friend who could teach capoiera and yoga (which supplement breaking anyway), a team of four cameras (donated by a Palestinian-American New Yorker to Aida refugee camp, but for our use in the meantime), and another friend to help film and give us support. And I brought cd's.

The goal of the program as we'd mapped out before arriving was to work with the youth again (along with new youth) on their breaking moves, teach them some capoiera, and provide them with the opportunity to give voice to their identity through video, while learning how to operate cameras. Basically, this plan worked out, though I realized what I'd already suspected: that our time was miles too short. By the time we arrived, had meetings with the Beit Jala Library (where the program was to be held), and set up the logistics, it only gave us 4 solid days of work.

All said and done (except for the editing that will be my arduous job!), we had fun. We discussed what stereotypes they thought American youth had about Palestinian youth and came up with some they felt were most important that they wanted to address: "All Palestinians are poor", "All Palestinians are Muslim", "Palestinians ride camels instead of driving in cars", "Palestinians do not wear modern clothing" and, of course, "All Palestinians are terrorists". We then gave them a quick tutorial in using the cameras and began interviews. They then thought about what b-roll (footage to supplement an interview) they needed and took the cameras out by themselves to film their neighborhood and their lives. We also of course spent a good deal of time photographing and videotaping their progress in breaking.

The youth from last year have improved so much and the friends they brought were so dedicated, learning so much in only four days. Clearly the Beit Jala Breakerz live on and hopefully this video will live up to their dedication and willingness to share a part of their lives on video with American youth.


Checkpoint... Check Mate

Friday, August 15, 2008

We are on our way to visit the Dead Sea with Khader (who will later turn out to be the husband of Rowan, who Kit lived with last year, but I won’t find this out until later in the evening, however I’m not surprised—everyone here seems to know each other somehow) driving us in a taxi. We are all anticipating the healing magic of the Dead Sea's clay, that beach-goers spread all over their bodies, expecting a dermitological miracles. I've been there before and I explain to my friends Dante and Nora how you can float in the water without even trying. Swimmers appear to be sitting in chaisse lounges when they are simply floating effortlessly in the uber-salty water. Khaled speaks very little English. A good chance for me to actually put my shaky Arabic to use. A situation in which my vocabulary actually comes in handy. I seem to have established “cab-driver useful Arabic”.

Ayye madina hatheehee?
Wen? Fowk? Naam. B’afham.
Fee checkpoint? La? Kwayyis.

He announces that there is “No checkpoint!” and we everyone relaxes. We’ve been told that there’s a good chance we might not be let through the checkpoint. We are on our way to one of the beaches of the Dead Sea. Supposedly we are OK to get in with our foreign passports, but we have a Palestinian taxi driver who might be denied access, and thus we would be denied access. We don’t fancy arriving back in Beit Sahour, our tails between our legs and our skin just as oily and unhealthy as before (the Dead Sea is purported to have skin-healing properties, with it’s extremely high salt and mineral content). However, our “luck” is short-lived. Not more than three minutes later, Khaled says “Oh! Checkpoint! It moves.” Apparently checkpoints are removed and reestablished in different locations without public notice. We approach and are waved over to the side of the road. Our green & white license plate gives us away as being a West Bank vehicle and not an Israeli vehicle. I wonder whether Gaza vehicles have yet a different color scheme or the same green and white.

We gather our passports together and Khader hands the Israeli solder this pile of documents we’d be doomed without. I look at the soldier, having trouble taking my eyes off his M-16. I notice he’s actually quite a cutie, and is likely no more than 19 years old. He friend joins him. They seem to speak only Hebrew. Khader tells them in Hebrew what I gather to be something like “I’m taking the Americans to the Dead Sea for three hours.” They inspect our passports closely and in no hurry. They match each one to our faces commenting “Canada… hmmm…. Ohio… hmmm”. They look at me and ask “Muslim? You?” I say “No.” They continue “Christian?” and I hesitate but answer yes. I suppose I am in the sense they mean in this part of the world, where birth religion is so much a part of identity. I determine this to be a poor time to begin discussing identity politics and my thoughts on organized religion. The continue to stare at me. “No Jewish?” I assure the that I am not. They question Dante and then they look at Nora, “You Jewish?” Again more hesitation, and Nora says “Yes” and trails off with something like “I mean” which I take to mean she’s hesitating to claim full Jewish-ness having a non-Jewish mother, and not really sure how she intends to identify. They stare longer and say some things in Hebrew that none of us understand. I’m simultaneously mesmerized by the soldiers weapons, unused to being in such close proximity to guns, and also hypersensitive, listening to every word uttered, paying such close attention to each facial movement, each body gesture, such close attention that time seems almost to stand still.

Finally they bring another officer, a woman who looks just as young, certainly much younger than any of us. I think of my cousins. She’s probably Meyer’s age. Meyer is my adorable 19 year old cousin, who seems to devote his time at Arizona State pretty evenly between partying, girls, and sports. This girl in army fatigues carries a giant gun and I wonder what she's been through so far in her army service. She keeps her finger in dangerously close to the trigger. I’m not suggesting that we’re in any really danger, but the air certainly feels tense. I can feel the adrenaline and “relaxed” can’t possibly be farther from the way I’m feeling.

Clearly the new officer has been summoned because she speaks English. She looks to me, “You are Jewish?” I answer "no" again. At this point, none of us is sure exactly what the right answers are, at least what are the answers that will expedite this process or at least not impede it. Again we affirm that Nora is the only Jewish one, and go through a bit of “What are you?” seemingly establishing to a satisfactory degree that I am Christian and that Dante is Catholic and that Nora is Jewish. The female soldier keeps her attention on Nora. “You think Jewish is bad?” She answers that no, it’s not bad. “You are not proud?... Jewish is the best, no?” Nora, unsure how to answer this, offers a shaky nod. “Why is not Jewish the best?... Jewish is better than Palestinian, no?” I sit there in silence, unable to help my friend who is clearly fighting off whole-heartedly what all of her morals are telling her to do, knowing that the only response would endorse would be no good for anyone involved, including our taxi driver who is the one likely risking the most in this situation. No need to be the hero, but here she is, forced to swallow, and give a stiff nod to phrases like “Jewish is better than Palestinian” and “Jewish is good because Jewish is power”. Finally one of the men (boys!) yells out “Jewish is Power Ranger!!” and we’re able to laugh at least superficially, breaking the tension.

Just when I think that maybe the situation is over, the officer continues on to engage me further. I can think of few situations were I’ve been less excited to speak with someone. “You speak Arabic?” Not wanting to launch into a probably lengthy conversation on why I speak some Arabic which I remember to be a bit of a doozy from my experience last year in leaving the country through Tel Aviv, I answer “Just a little”. She immediately prods, “Well, how do you talk to him?” indicating the driver. “My friend called him. He’s driving us.” Some questioning about when exactly we’ll be coming back ensues and she’s clearly trying to either catch me in a lie or else make me feel uncomfortable and scared enough to prove her power. Khaled tells her something I don’t catch and then she asks me how long we will stay at the Dead Sea. When I answer 3 or 4 hours”, she smiles what seems to be a mocking grin. “Three hours or four hours? Which is it?”, looking back to Khaled. I tell here “Well we’re leaving by 6 o’clock, I don’t know what time it is now. Not more than three hours”. She continues to stare at me grinning. The moment lasts for at least eternity. Finally, the officer says, “Ok, you can go.” And to Khaled, “Honk when you come back through”.

The whole experience may have taken five minute or twenty and I’d believe it. We’re all tense in the car past when we arrive at the Dead Sea. Nora apologizes to Khaled for the situation we’ve put him in. His body language seems to say “What? That? It’s nothing.”

I feel so frustrated, and saddened. Khaled is the only calm one. I feel like I’ve just been a white person in the 60’s watching a black person being turned away at a cafĂ© and did nothing. We are all shaken. The only thing we can do is try to wash away our dark thoughts with medicinal dead sea clay, but I’m not sure even this place of miracles can heal this wound.


Fortuitous Disappointment

1:30AM Tuesday, August 12th.

Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv.

Waiting for for shuttle van to Jerusalem.

Waiting in my second long-ling-moving-infitessimally-slowly of the trip, I decide to put on my ipod for the first time in the trip since I left New York literally twenty-four hours ago. Twenty-four hours almost to the minute. Since I have developed the perverse habit of "challenging" myself while traveling to wait until the last possible moment to provide my experience with a soundtrack, I've made it this far and am quite pleased with myself. I am waiting in the airport to be passed through the passport check area, the area in which last year I was questioned "Why are you here? Where are you going? Who are you staying with?" in rapid speed. Everyone has warned me that since I was here before and am known to have previously visited the West Bank, I should be ready for 2-3 hours of interrogation etc. I look around me, in the "foreign passports" line. There is a Japanese family in the line next to me and I find myself wondering why they are there before I catch myself and remember that there are plenty of people visiting Tel Aviv who aren't Jewish, but it somehow I am still surprised. I already can tell that people here assume I'm Jewish from the passing comments directed at me. Comments made in Hebrew with a smile, assuming I’ll nod “Yes, yes, of course”... etc… Then again, perhaps the Japanese family is Jewish. "Heidi", I tell myself, "Open your damn mind a little!"

I look around me, suddenly remembering what it is like to be in a place where I can't read any of the signs, not even to sound out letters. I know zero Hebrew and many signs do not have an English or Arabic translation. There are at least twelve lines of people waiting. Families, young adults, some clearly American (maybe Birthright trips?), some young couples, some elderly couples, some clearly religious Jewish people, most people unidentifiable as far as religion or religious observance.

So here I am in Aaron Neville bliss, my music oddly juxtaposed with the situation. I've decided to simply hit "shuffle" for all of the music stored on my ipod and let fate set the tone. Next up: perfection--Stevie (Wonder). Now I’m truly enjoying the wait. I’m nodding my head, transported to a better place, transcending the passport line. Almost excited now, gear up, pumped up for my impending interrogation. I stand on the threshold in anticipation, as if for a track race, or a bgirl battle. I wait an extra two seconds as the woman ahead of me is dismissed, to see what shuffles next on my ipod. A sign! Matisyahu’s “Salaam/Shalom”. I laugh to myself, hit pause, remove my headphones and step up into the officer. She doesn’t say a word. Doesn’t look at me. Takes my passport. Stamp (on the passport). Nod (indicating I should move on). I wait a second longer, not understanding. Finally realizing I’m done, I realize I’m disappointed. The disappointment floods over me. Am I really not even worth flagging? Am I not dangerous enough? Not enough of a threat?! I’m indignant! Then realizing I have the freedom to get my bag and get the hell outta the airport, I discard my grief and head off into what is now familiar territory. Off to meet Nora at the hostel.

I have to wonder, Isn't the Israeli security rumored to be the best in the world? I feel I certainly have enough of a history of suspect behavior to warrant a five minute interrogation? For a moment I question the quality of the government's intelligence. Then again, I'm not a danger after all to the state, so perhaps their intelligence is so good, they knew that me and my breakdancing wasn't worth their time. Maybe if I could do windmillz, I'd be more dangerous.



As I sit in a Brooklyn coffee shop, attempting to study for a graduate school math placement exam I will take in a month... at the end of our orientation... which is after I return from Palestine... it's hard to stay focused, but the prospect of returning to Palestine looming. I leave in nine days. I arrive in ten and a half. I'm nervous. I'm nervous that Israel will turn me away at Ben Gurion. I'm nervous that something won't work out with working with the youth. I'm nervous my video camera will be taken away. I'm nervous that my friends won't have fun. I'm nervous that something will go wrong politically or otherwise. But mostly I'm happy to be going back and happy that my nervous-ness cannot top that which I felt leaving last year. I can't wait to see John and Joseph and Jumana and George and Michel and all the youth....


Stream of Consciousness Observations

**(at least in the Bethlehem area, I dont know about beyond) No one wears seatbelts unless they "have to" by Israeli military order. This means that as soon as we enter an area near a checkpoint or where the IDF patrols, everyone puts on his/her seatbelt. The minute we leave that area, the seatbelt are immediately unclicked. It's a small gesture of resistance. I'm all for that but I've gotta say, my life's been in danger more than once due to this form of resistance. Ah well, what's resistance without some threat of danger? :) Hish and Philip had a great experience where their taxi driver, in a newer car with the alarm that reminds you to put on your seatbelt found the man was so adamant about refusing to wear a seatbelt that he prefered the CONSTANT BEEPING of the alarm to putting on his seatbelt. That means 8-12 hours a day of "beep... beep... beep... beep... beep..." Amazing.

**Half of the time the things asked of us at checkpoints (which I should remind all are NOT just between the West Bank and Israel/'48/historical Palestine but also simply between sections of the West Bank for no reason other than control of the entire occupied territories) are clearly only for show to make sure we know who is in charge. "Open this door" and then they don't even end up looking in. or "Where are you from?" when they have a passport in front of them. Or randomly disallowing some people to come through on a given day for no apparent reason.

**The boy who walked us through the old city of Nablus and took us through the martyrs graveyard. He's an ambulance driver. When we passed on grave, he said "This is my cousin". He'd been driving the ambulence that night during the 2nd Intifada and was called to a scene. The victim died on the way to the hospital. Only after reaching the hospital did he realize it was his cousin. His eyes become misty. We keep walking and he quickly changes the subject to ask me if I like football...

**Watch "Bili'in Habibati", a film by Israeli filmmaker and activist, Shai Pollack. It shows in detail the ignorance and detachment of many soldiers and the humanity as well as both the strength and helplessness of the people of Bili'in Camp while protesting the construction of the Wall through their land. Shai did incredible work with this film and has done much to try to further the case for human rights in Palestine and to change the minds of his fellow Israeli compatriots. Watching this movie with a group of Palestinian students from areas including Jenin, Nablus, Abu Dis and Hebron made me also realize that while I'm still shocked by seeing these images they are not--these are somewhat commonplace to those who have grown up with such violence.