Sunday, February 28, 2010

One day from start to finish

Life in Palestine is best described on a daily basis. Here is my Wednesday February 24, 2010:
The sun was warm and strong as it woke me from my couch pillow bed on the floor of the Al-Kurd tent. Normally, the children from the house next door are up and about, screaming and playing beginning around 7am but today I either slept through it or they were inside sick. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, found my shoes (hidden from the settlers under a couch in the tent), checked my watch and walked out into the Al-Kurd/Settler shared walkway. Trip and Bridget were already circled around the remaining warmth of the fire on the sidewalk Gawi camp. Nasser was off to the side chatting with another neighborhood guy. It was almost 11am and the previous night I had made plans for Trip and I to smoke hookah and drink tea with my friend, Hiba, who lives in Sheikh Jarrah.
I gathered my toothbrush, change of clothe, cell phone chargers and Trip for our morning tea party. We walked down the block, past the ever-present police vehicle, took a left at the home that was recently defaced with a tag translating to “Death to Arabs,” continued up the hill, turned right at the now settler-occupied Hanoun house and made our way to Hiba’s home.
Hiba was just getting her morning started so we waited on the deck, picking lemons from the tree, carving off the sweet smelling peel, and dipping the sour flesh into a bowl of sugar. When Hiba emerged from her home, she surprised us by presenting us with chocolate cake with sprinkles! “College! Cake for breakfast!!!” Trip and I laughed aloud in tandem. This was the running joke at the Lorax, where we often had housemates working at local sweet shops and would frequently wake up to day-old delights. Hiba had saved us some cake from last night’s dinner and we were oh-so-happy. We ate cake, sipped tea and smoked hookah. Either the shesha is stronger here or I am so out of practice because while Trip was off practicing smoke rings, I was getting super light headed.
We were soon joined by Hiba’s aunt who fed us nuts and seeds. I impressed everyone (or at least myself) with my ability to crack sunflower and watermelon seeds open with my front teeth, Palestinian style. She told us about her life as a teacher in Ramallah and then about her fear of receiving “the papers.”
In Shiekh Jarrah, “the papers” is an ominous reference to an eviction notice. Unless court battle outcomes change, or international law is adhered to, “the papers” mean imminent loss. I learn that a few weeks ago two more homes in Sheikh Jarrah received “the papers.” A sad silence fell over us all that went unbroken for some minutes.
When the shesha was spent, we went inside to charge our electronics and freshen up a bit. The previous day, Hiba had given me a bag full of her old clothe (the woman in Sheikh Jarrah seem to disapprove of my traveler free-pile-style). So now I am wearing super tight light washed jeans, a blue stripped linen shirt and a pink cartagin with a hood. Later in the evening, Ayman, the 19 year old oldest son in the Gawi family would walk up to me and say “You look beautiful….what’s wrong with you?” hahaha
After the relaxing morning, Hiba and I set off for the market to buy food for the weekly Wednesday night dinner I started back in January. This week, we are making kosahart or summer squash. We buy the squash from one of the old woman who sell produce on the sidewalks. I’ve always wanted to buy from them but have never really needed anything that they sell; squash, grape leaves, zatar spice, leafy greens. Hiba negotiated a good price for the squash, 8 shekels for 2 kilos. We also bought the seasonal delicacy, green almonds, for 5 shekels.
For the past month, almond trees across Palestine have been in full bloom. Filled with small white blossoms, the trees speckle the terraced Palestinian country side and beautifully contrast with the grey-green olive trees. Until now, I have only heard of green almonds and was always a little bewildered by the idea. The whole thing is green, the outer shell and inner baby almond. They have a texture that is not quite as strong as a carrot. The flavor is accentuated by copious amounts of salt and is fresh, slightly bitter and crisp.
We arrive back in Sheikh Jarrah to meet the municipality as they attempt to destroy the Gawi sidewalk camp. They manage to grab a table (I am sad because now we need to find a new table for the dinner that evening) but we act quickly enough to move most of the plastic chairs and benches into a neighbor’s yard.
After the municipality leaves, we are disturbed by the settlers occupying the Gawi home. They have caught on to the idea of having cameras on hand and were standing across the street filming us. Nasser sets the tone by standing up, placing one foot onto the plastic chair, bending forward with his hand under his chin and smiling for the camera. Next, he turns around, lifts up his long jacket and gives them a nice butt shot. The children are rolling on the ground with laughter and Hiba and I decide to join in. We do a few Madonna poses and set up a catwalk. I end my catwalk with a handstand that I was able to hold for what I think is an impressive amount of time.
By this point, the settlers have gotten the point that, in their attempt to mock us, we have turned the tables. They leave but the fun continues. I put a mattress on the ground and show the kids how to do headstands, backbends and other fun flips. Soon, roller blade and bikes are produced. This scene is sadly missing hula hoops because the previous day they were confiscated by the municipality, AGAIN!
Around 4pm we go back to Hiba’s house to cook kosahart. I chopped, she directed. In a few hours we had a delicious squash, tomato and rice dish to serve. I am not one to brag, but I am becoming quite a good Palestinian wife…at least in the kitchen. Hiba also makes popcorn on the stove-my favorite food in the world.
At 6pm we bring the food down to the Gawi camp. By 6:15 everything is ready to eat, including super super delicious malfoof, a rice stuffed steamed cabbage roll made by Nasser’s wife. I am really excited about the malfoof because it takes for-fucking-ever to roll and stuff each one so it is a special occasion food for sure. I’m glad that she thinks of these dinners as special occasions. It makes me feel like we are doing good things here. In about 20 minutes the crowd of neighbors and internationals have finished all the food. In 20 more minutes, the Israelis show up with their dishes.
The atmosphere is really wonderful. We meet Israeli activists working for Sheikh Jarrah, a doctor from the UK that just got back from a weeklong intensive training session in Gaza, internationals who have come to just check things out and more neighbors who are slowing being drawn out of their homes by the community activities.
When dinner ends, Maisoon, Nasser’s wife, schools us all in jump rope. Adam, their second youngest son, who I recognize as the canary for stress levels at Sheikh Jarrah, is jumping up and down screaming with laughter.
In a few confusing moments later, everything has changed. Adam isn’t laughing. He is crying. A line of 20 settlers, teenage boys and young men, file into the occupied Al-Kurd house. They are preparing for Purim, a big, multiday religious holiday that involves a lot of alcohol consumption. Their egos are high and after a great community dinner, so are those of the neighborhood residents.
Insult slinging rapidly escalates into yelling matches, which escalates into something more physical. Roughly 30 settlers, 30 Palestinians and 60 military and police descend into the 40x40 foot front yard of the Al-Kurds. What happened for the next few hours can only be describe as a riot. A full on riot.
Media, internationals, Israeli activists join the crowd to document and deescalate. Neighborhood kids find empty containers and sticks and drum out what seems like war beats. Chaos can be found in every corner.
Each child in the Gawi family is reacting differently. 19 month old Sara is silently watching everything from her mother’s arms. 4 year old Adam is screaming with tears running down his cheeks. 6 year old Abudullah is drumming. 10 year old Muhammad is wandering around and 19 year old Ayman has so much rage in his eyes that he must get out of Sheikh Jarrah as soon as possible to avoid what could easily be a very bad situation.
I’m taking video and photos of the events. I take a short break to explain what is happening to a Swedish couple who came by to learn more about the situation (nice timing, eh?) and again later to a few Israelis who are on their way home from the gym and saw the police vehicles clogging the streets. I ask the gym-goers if live in Jerusalem. They tell me yes. I ask if they have ever heard of Sheikh Jarrah. They tell me no. I start from the beginning, repeatedly encouraging them to read more about it online. I am unable to finish my discussion because police interrupt us and tell us to disperse.
The other thing distracting me throughout the events is this idea that something must be done for the kids. After this thought nags me for a few minutes, I rush to the corner market and fill a bag with candy bars and juice boxes. When I get back to the Al-Kurd lawn everything is more or less the same. Fight here-fight there-people rushing from one to the other. I seek out the children in the mess of it all and pass them the treats. The first girl I see is peeking over the 2 meter tall wall that divides her home from the Al-Kurds. She seems confused by the offer, but after a few words in Arabic, accepts the candy. Next, I find Adam. He is still crying. I make eye contact with him and hold out a candy bar and juice box. He continues to cry. I place it in the kangaroo pouch of his sweater.
The riot more or less ends when police spray pepper spray into the face of a Palestinian mother holding her one year old girl. Neighbors produce bags of milk (yep-milk in bags, not cartons here) to counteract the sting. We are all coughing. I see the police chief and yell at him “who sprayed pepper spray? why did you spray her???” He flips me off and tells me he doesn’t speak English…in perfect English.
After the riots stop, the Israeli activists gather in a semi-circle around the entrance to the Al-Kurd house and lead pro-Palestinian, pro-Sheikh Jarrah chants. This lifts everyone’s spirits and calms the mood significantly. I make up my own words based on the Hebrew that I hear: Sheikh Jarrah la ki lu-la la leeta sha she shuuuu!!!
After this, I make my way over to the fire where we have been instructed by the police to go if we do not want to be arrested. I take a seat next to Abdullah who was hit in the knee by a settler and now has a bandage going from his mid-calf to mid-thigh. I offer him a juice box and candy bar. He accepts but shows me with a frustrated and exhausted look that he can’t open either because his knuckles have also been bandaged, preventing him from bending his hand. I open the juice and candy and pass it back to him. Soon, his brother Adam emerges and pulls out his candy and juice from where I stashed it earlier in his kangaroo pouch. They sit together, sad, exhausted, hurt. Sipping juice and munching on treats. Maisoon, their mother walks up and asked where they got the snacks. In unison, they look up at me. She and I make eye contact and she gives me a sly wink and a grateful smile. By 11pm, Adam and Abdullah are asleep in the plastic chairs by the fire. A neighbor drives up shortly after and we load them into the car so they can go back to their rented home.
By 1am all is calm in Sheikh Jarrah. The solitary police vehicle is in its spot, the moon is bright, the shebab are smoking cigarettes around the fire and absolutely no sign of the evening’s chaos remains.
This is Palestine.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Storm after the calm

For five days earlier this month, I physically removed myself from the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem for a vacation with my sister. What I found however, is that it was impossible for me to mentally separate myself. To cope with my physical absence from the occupation, I found a book to read called In the Company of Soldiers; a book about the first months of the invasion of Iraq and how it rapidly evolved from a war to an occupation. Normally, I’m not sure I would find this book so interesting, but being in the state of mind that I am in right now, I ate it up. I couldn’t put it down-it became my lifeline for sanity. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by thoughts, fears and hopes about Israel, about Palestine, I found solace in this book. It served as a way for me to indulge my military-occupation-war-resistance focused mind without thinking about Israel or Palestine. In a previous update, I wrote about the nervous hum I have developed and how I’m starting to wonder if my characteristics now are indicative of lifelong personality traits. I now wonder if after being here my mind will ever fully unwind from this militerized mentality. When Kasey and I were together, I noticed that most of my conversation topics focused on some aspect of the conflict. For me, the conflict topics seemed logical because we were in Israel, rather than Egypt so daily life was not just reminding me, but rather, blinking neon Las Vegas style signs in my face-how could I not think about this?? Dead Sea=boycott campaign against Dead Sea beauty products. Did you know that all of these mountains behind us are Closed Military Zones? Do you think the Border Police would stop me if I floated to Jordan?
Don’t get me wrong, I am so eternally grateful that Kasey came to visit me. It has been a long time since I’ve seen family and I was very glad to spend a large amount of uninterrupted time with my sister. These are just my observations about myself.
Friday evening, after Kasey had safely crossed back into Egypt and was en route back to America, I returned to Sheikh Jarrah in occupied east Jerusalem. It was around 5pm and the weekly demonstration was ending. Police were still blocking access to the street where the tents/homes are located (to guard the settlers from the 500+ nonviolent protesters against the ethnic cleansing of east Jerusalem). I met up with some activist friends and one offered to show me the back way in so I could reunite with the families. We walked up the road, down a few steps, over a wall, down the grassy hillside, over another wall and out the front gate of a neighbor’s home. Military was present in the streets and trying to clear people away. My big backpack and I managed to grab their attention and they started walking towards me. Luckily, I also grabbed the attention of the neighborhood kids and before the military had a chance to speak with me, I was surrounded by a handful of kids under the age of ten showing me their new hula hooping skills. Hula hoop blockade! An extra hoop was produced for me and I set down my pack and joined in. I kept an eye on the military folk and they seemed a bit confused about how to navigate this situation. Eventually, the hoop blockade wore down and they approached me and asked for ID. At this moment, a neighbor and wonderful activist, Salah, saw me and interrupted the military man to give me a hug and welcome me back to the neighborhood. Despite Salah’s insistence that I was a neighborhood resident, the soldier wanted to see ID anyway. Salah and I walked with him to the military truck and I showed him my passport. All the while Salah is still insisting that I live there and they should not bother me. After a few minutes, they got distracted with something else and I just walked away.
I was welcomed back to Sheikh Jarrah with smiles, hugs and hula hoops. It was one of the most heartwarming welcomings of my entire life. I didn’t realize how connected to the community there I had become until I left and I didn’t know how much they appreciated me until I returned. It was an amazing moment and feeling that I will never forget.
I spent 5 of the next 7 days at Sheikh Jarrah. Usually, people get too exhausted after two or three days on the streets but I was so happy to be back there that I remained energetic and excited to be there for almost the whole week. I have really become attuned to the atmosphere at Sheikh Jarrah. When I left for vacation, tensions were high and harassment was commonplace. However, this past week has been very light and calm. The young settler boys seem to not be hanging out so much anymore, severely decreasing the amount of clashes. There were no Zionist real estate settler tours this week either(yes, they are showing property in Sheikh Jarrah before the families are even evicted.
The best night was Wednesday. The weekly Wednesday dinners we host have really taken off and this week was super special because it was the first one after Nasser Gawi was allowed back into the neighborhood after the settler M-16 incident. His whole family was there, neighbors and friends too. All the shebab or young boys showed up as well.
I went to the Shufat refugee camp earlier in the day to cook a main course for the dinner with a friend. This was my first experience in a refugee camp and I was really surprised by what I saw-houses, apartments, shops, bus stops, cafes. I guess it is silly of me to think that after 60 years people would still be living in tents but I guess I didn’t know what to expect. The camp is just like every other neighborhood, except this one has a wall around it and a checkpoint to get in and out. The wall is The Wall (to separate Israel from Palestine) even though Shufat camp is legally in Jerusalem, due to its demographics (Palestinian), Israel has put it on the West Bank side of the barrier. So even though this area is in Israel, it is physically excluded by the Wall and a full military checkpoint (similar to the one you go through getting from Ramallah, Palestine to Jerusalem, Israel. My attempt at dinner was not totally successful and after 5 hours of cooking had only produced 8 vegetarian calzones. Out of time and patience, I slopped the meat calzone ingredients together and called it good. As I was doing this, I remembered that Palestinians eat everything with pita and I asked myself why I went to all this trouble putting things in individual breaded pockets when they would just do it anyway?
Well, the food proved too “hippie” for the neighborhood residents but they ate some of it anyway and still expressed gratitude. Luckily, one of the neighborhood girls made devils food cake and that really saved the meal. The kids brought out the hoops again, the shebab started playing anther one of their super creative and slightly violent games of tag and the little neighborhood girls let me pick them up and spin them around. Overall, this evening was another time when I felt very connected to the community and very glad to be here.
I ended my marathon stay at Sheikh Jarrah with the Friday demonstration. It was smaller than normal because thousand had flocked to the West Bank village of Bi’lin for their 5th anniversary protest against the Apartheid Wall which stole over 60% of their land. I went up to the demo for a bit, then back down to the Gawi camp (the back way, of course). It was a calm demo, without the tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets, Skunk water, sound bombs and live ammunition that I have become accustomed to on Friday Demo Day. When it ended I went to a neighbor’s house and we made another devils food cake and smoked hookah.
That evening, I did what I’ve wanted to do for the last 6 months-dance party!!!! I went out with some of the Israeli activists and shebab to a bar in West Jerusalem (Muslim east Jerusalem is not surprisingly lacking in the bar scene). We danced to old hip hop, took shots of arok (a licorice like liqueur common in the Middle East) and talked activist talk. By 3 though, the music quality had deteriorated significantly and now they were trying to get us all to the Macerana. Nope. I’m leaving.
After a super long and rewarding stay at Sheikh Jarrah I’ve made it back to Ramallah where I’m working on the ISM volunteer schedule for next week. We are sending people to Nabalus where ISM mostly responds to settler violence, to Bir Al-Eid where two Palestinians were shot at a checkpoint a few days ago and now villagers are afraid to access their fields unaccompanied, to Hebron where there is a demonstration Thursday to open the main road, Shuhuda Street to Palestinians instead of just settlers (in a town where the Palestinian to settler ratio is 4:1) and of course, Sheikh Jarrah.
This is the second night that I’ve stayed here since the raids occurred. When I finish typing this I will prepare for bed. This includes not just brushing my teeth but also putting my shoes where I can access them quickly, taking the SD card out of my camera, putting my passport within arms reach and lastly, stashing this computer so it does not get stolen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Top 40s Will Bring Us Together

Things of mine that the Israeli police stole after a raid on our apartment in direct violation of the Oslo Accords: laptop, two cell phones, my ipod. Last week they stole my hula hoop from Sheikh Jarrah! BOOO!
Story time:
It is raining. I am in Ramallah donning my head-toe northwest certified rain gear. I’m on a street corner across from the Stars & Bucks Coffee shop waiting for someone to give me some money to deliver to someone else in Jerusalem for an ISM volunteer in Gaza. I have her passport in my pocket, by the way. Across the street, Akron’s Right Now (Na Na Na) plays from the shoe store speakers rapping about things I know would be so unspeakably inappropriate in Arab culture and probably not allowed on the loud speakers if the songs were translated. I however, am indulging myself in this top 40 ear paradise, singing along in my head because, yes, I know all the words. Then without warning, in the middle of the chorus, the music stops. Quickly replacing Akron in the shoe store speakers is the Muslim call to prayer, a 5 times daily moan set on a volume so high that everyone in the entire city, inside and outside of buildings, can hear it. Just a few moments later, a fellow in his mid thirties approaches me. “Are you waiting for something?” he asks. “Yes” I reply. Without another word, he pulls out a handful of Euros. “One, two, three….ten, one thousand Euros. You count it.” I do. I nod. He walks away. The call to prayer still blares from my top 40 speakers.
Fast forward four days-I’m sitting at a super posh hostel in the super posh border town of Eliat, Israel with my sister (she is still sleeping). The sun is shining and I’m in sandals. Britney Spear’s new video is playing on MTV on the television mounted to the ceiling.
Perhaps pop music diplomacy is a strategy we should try.
I am still spending most of my time at Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem. Winter has arrived in full force and I’m more grateful for the treated-wood bonfires than I ever thought imaginable. The chemical scented smoke is in my hair, jacket, and jeans and I love it…to an extent. There seems to be an ongoing battle at Sheikh Jarrah between those of us who do not think a smoky fire should be brought inside the tent and others who want the fire to follow them wherever they go, including inside a poorly ventilated tent. It usually plays out like this: I go inside the tent, sit down, make myself comfortable, then a few minutes later a smoke-loving guy comes in and tells me I must be freezing. He will fetch the fire. “No no no I’m fine. I promise!” I say. But, in just a few minutes, he has dragged in the fire barrel and I’m putting on my shoes to go back outside, into the cold.
The tents are not holding up so well against the wind and rain. We have resecured them with wood boards, duck tape and even string. Luckily, lashing and knot tying is one of Trip’s favorite activities, so he is right at home and I have a chance to practice my newly acquired knot tying survival skills!
When the tents do manage to withstand the night’s wind, they must next withstand attempts by the municipality to take them. Last Monday, they were not so lucky and the police took the site and cleared the site. Police took the tent, a couch, chairs, and HULA HOOPS! Damn them. Hula hoops have no security threat whatsoever! Boo. Trip and I were not there the morning they were taken but we got the call the moment it started and got to work on a media push to get media and activists to come to the tent building event later in the day. An awesome press release was written and sent out to an extensive list. By 4pm at Sheikh Jarrah there were over 2 dozen media outlets covering the event. A few settlers were in front of the house in the pre-tent building period and the press were addicted to them like they were endangered species at a zoo. It was so funny; 20+ journalists snapping photos of the settlers in there “non native” habitat.
I have started to do more community organizing in Sheikh Jarrah. This has been great, however it is a change from the environmental work that I’m used to. I find that I cannot hold onto my environmental values so tightly. When I try to do this, my intentions are lost in translation (figuratively and literally). For example, we started doing Wednesday community dinners in Sheikh Jarrah. I spent all afternoon a few Wednesday’s back cooking maklube or “upside down.” It is a rice dish that you flip over at the end onto a big tray and everyone eats from the tray. First, you deep fry all the veggies, then you soak the rice, then you put the veggies and meat on the bottom of a big pot, cover in rice and add the super special and tasty Palestinian rice spice and cook. While I have taken to eating meat that is cooked for me in situations where it is rude to turn it down, buying and cooking meat is a whole other level. For the first weekly dinner, we made a vegetarian maklube full of super great veggies. While the Israeli vegan activists were pleased with the meal, the locals in Sheikh Jarrah were not so keen on it. Most just ate at their homes and milled around politely. Upon evaluation, we decided that at the next dinner, we would cook one chicken and one veggie maklube. The dinner was much more successful, despite the near freezing temperatures and rain. Score one for community organizing, minus one for the environment and giving into the factory farmed animal torture industry.
One Israeli activist told us that he was glad to have come to the dinner because he does so much work against the occupation, but rarely has an opportunity to just hang out with his Palestinian peers. This made me feel really good about what we had organized. We also had face painting and I made a bunch of new hoops for the kids. But it was too cold for parents to let their kids come out and play. Maybe next week.
This week in action news included a settler/solider starting a fight with the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah by throwing rocks at the tent then grabbing a kid. When Nasser Gawi pulled him off the kid, a fight ensued that led to the settler/solider (living in Nasser’s home) to loading, cocking and waving his M-16 at everyone, including me. I filmed it all. To see the video and read the full report:
Upon review of the rest of the video (not posted) from the incident, I learned that I have developed a nervous hum. Great. I hum a Rainbow song that I learned from the Germans I met in Spain. It goes like this:
Deep inside my heart I’ve got this
Everlasting love that’s shinin
Like the sun it radiates on everyone
And the more that I give
The more I’ve got to give
It’s just the way that I live
It’s what I’m living na na….repeat.
Ohi. I wonder if this is one of those things that will stick with me forever. I’m probably old enough to be developing habits that will stick with me throughout my lifetime. I remember my parents telling me I hummed a lot as a kid. Perhaps this is just my old trait coming back out again and in that case, I will probably do it for the rest of my life. hummhuummmmhummmmmmmmmmm. goodbye.